Bush to nominate Rehnquist's successor on court `promptly'

President must choose nominee, chief justice

Transition in the Supreme Court

September 05, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

President Bush said yesterday that he would move "promptly" to name a successor to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

Rehnquist's death late Saturday gave Bush a rare opportunity to put his conservative stamp on the Supreme Court by filling two vacancies simultaneously. Bush is the first president in 34 years to face two court vacancies at once.

Rehnquist's death came days before the Senate is scheduled to begin confirmation hearings for John G. Roberts Jr., the appellate court judge Bush tapped in July to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"I will choose in a timely manner a highly qualified nominee to succeed Chief Justice Rehnquist," Bush said in a morning statement from the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

But the president faces a set of weighty decisions about how to proceed on the nominations. Among them: He must decide whom to nominate to succeed Rehnquist and when to announce his pick; when to go forward with Roberts' confirmation hearings; and whom to select as the new chief justice.

Presidential aides met yesterday to discuss whether to postpone Roberts' hearings, set to begin tomorrow, in light of Rehnquist's death.

The death of the chief justice, who was 80 and suffering from thyroid cancer, came one month before the court is to convene for its next term, raising the possibility that it would begin the session with at least one vacancy.

These issues come at an extraordinarily challenging moment in Bush's presidency, as he mobilizes a huge relief and recovery effort in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and confronts angry questions about his administration's handling of the disaster.

The Supreme Court announced yesterday that Rehnquist's body would lie in repose tomorrow and Wednesday at the court and will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday immediately after funeral services.

Bush ordered that flags on public buildings be flown at half-staff through September 13 in honor of Rehnquist.

Formidable problems

A rare hectic Sunday for the president reflected the formidable difficulties he faces.

Informed of Rehnquist's death about 11 p.m. on Saturday -- long after his customary bedtime -- Bush rose early to attend church with his wife, Laura, then returned to the White House to make a televised appearance mourning the justice's death as "a great loss for the court and for our country."

Calling Rehnquist "a man of character and dedication," Bush praised him for staying on at the court even as he battled debilitating cancer. He said he was "honored" and "deeply touched" by Rehnquist's presence at Bush's second inauguration, where the justice -- frail and struggling to be heard through a tracheotomy tube -- swore in the president.

Within an hour of his remarks about Rehnquist, Bush arrived yesterday for an unscheduled stop at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the American Red Cross to praise the organization's work in Katrina's aftermath and ask Americans to give cash, manpower and blood to aid the cause.

"This country is coming together to help people who hurt. And one of the leaders of the army of compassion is the Red Cross," Bush told employees there. "I want to thank all the good folks here who really show the world the great compassion of our country."

Some Republicans urged Bush yesterday to move swiftly to name a successor for Rehnquist, predicting that resistance among his opponents would only grow as time passes.

"The longer he waits, the more difficult it's going to be to get anybody through. And so it's better to face the music now," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the former Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said on ABC's This Week.

Democrats were calling for a postponement of the hearings in light of the scope of the devastation wrought by the hurricane and Rehnquist's death.

"Out of respect for the memory of Chief Justice Rehnquist and in fairness to those whose lives continue to be devastated by Katrina, the Senate should not commence a Supreme Court confirmation hearing this Tuesday," Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, said in a statement. "A brief postponement will not disadvantage anyone."

If Rehnquist's death threw an element of uncertainty into Bush's strategy for the next few weeks, it hardly caught the White House off guard.

Making plans

Bush's team has been planning virtually since the moment he took office for multiple Supreme Court vacancies, and in particular for the departure of Rehnquist, who spent 33 years on the high court, almost 19 of them as chief.

Senior aides were surprised this summer when it was O'Connor, not the ailing Rehnquist, who was the first in Bush's term to announce she would retire. In the weeks that followed, some of Bush's aides joined in the rampant speculation that Rehnquist was close to making such an announcement himself.

Talk of Rehnquist's impending departure had largely ceased in August, with Bush's team focused on preparing Roberts for his confirmation hearings.

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