Lawmakers reflect on Rehnquist's deep commitment to federal judiciary

Delay in Roberts' hearing weighed

some say moving ahead would show respect

Transition in the Supreme Court

September 05, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As the news of the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist began to sink in yesterday, lawmakers and court watchers tried to keep the focus on his lengthy tenure and legacy.

But with the unusual situation of two vacancies just four weeks before the beginning of the high court's fall term, there also was debate over the best way to proceed.

The tributes to Rehnquist began pouring in late Saturday as word of his death from thyroid cancer spread. Rehnquist, 80, had been sick since last fall but had staunchly refused any talk of resignation.

"Chief Justice Rehnquist's death marks the passing of a great American. For more than three decades he left a deep imprint on American law," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican. "It has been a profound experience to know him personally."

The ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, said Rehnquist would be remembered "for his stalwart public service and his unyielding efforts to protect the independence of the federal judiciary."

Like many other lawmakers, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, offered prayers for Rehnquist's children and family.

"He will be remembered for his intelligent and legal excellence, as well as his dedication and unwavering commitment to the federal judiciary during his long tenure," she said in a statement.

At the same time, there were questions about whether the confirmation hearings for Judge John G. Roberts Jr., scheduled to begin tomorrow, would or should be postponed until after Rehnquist's funeral. Republican officials were considering a postponement but are unlikely to announce a decision until funeral arrangements are complete.

Court officials said yesterday that they expected Rehnquist would lie in repose tomorrow and Wednesday at the court and be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Roberts was nominated to take the place of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who announced her retirement plans July 1. Roberts is expected to be confirmed relatively easily, but his likely role as the first of two new justices -- after 11 years of stability on the nation's highest court -- could change the dynamic.

Yesterday, several Republicans said the best way to show respect for Rehnquist's 33-year career as a justice would be to move ahead as planned with Roberts' hearings.

"One thing we want to avoid is having two vacancies on the Supreme Court when the court reconvenes the first Monday in October -- because it's very likely we'll have at least one vacancy," Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said on Fox News Sunday.

But Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said there was no need to rush.

"We can take a few days out to mourn Justice Rehnquist. He was a towering figure in the judiciary," Schumer said on ABC's This Week. "I think it makes a good deal of sense for us to take time, catch our breath and take a few days out."

Whenever Roberts' hearings begin, the second vacancy is likely to be a factor, either because Bush decides to recast Roberts as a nominee for chief justice or because he becomes a proxy for a future nominee.

When O'Connor announced her retirement, the expectation was that outside interest groups would engage in an all-out battle this summer, working hard to influence the outcome. For the most part, that clash didn't materialize, although partisans on both sides indicated yesterday that Rehnquist's death probably will raise the noise level.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said he expects the Roberts hearings to set the stage for a later, more intensive fight.

"It doesn't change our strategy at all," he said. "I think there's a realization that this probably makes these hearings more important, and will focus more attention on them, because it's probably more now about subsequent nominations than about the nomination of Judge Roberts."

In the past two weeks, a number of interest groups, most of them associated with liberal causes, announced their opposition to Roberts. Some said yesterday that a second opening would reinvigorate the debate over the future makeup of the court.

"This, I believe, will heighten the public awareness of what's at stake with the Roberts nomination and with respect to the future of the Supreme Court," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal group that is opposing Roberts' confirmation.

"We're now going to have a quarter of the members, really, decided over the next couple of months," he said. "Replacing two justices at once will have a monumental impact on the court and on the future of the country, and it's important that the Senate and the president do this process well, rather than do it quickly."

Neas suggested postponing the hearings to honor Rehnquist and to allow the nation to focus on helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina recover.

Even without a delay in the hearings, the idea that the court would return Oct. 3 with a permanent lineup seems much less likely now.

"We thought we might be at the end of the beginning of the process," said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, a senior fellow for legal studies at the Family Research Council. "Now it seems we're at the beginning of the beginning of the process because this isn't going to be over in four weeks."

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