WASHINGTON -- John G. Roberts Jr. was sworn in yesterday as the nation's 17th chief justice, succeeding the man he once called "Boss," after the Senate voted by a wide margin to confirm him. Attention quickly shifted to the next vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Standing under the chandeliers in the East Room of the White House, Roberts vowed to bear "true faith and allegiance" to the Constitution. He said he hoped to "pass on to my children's generation a charter of self-government as strong and as vibrant" as the one his predecessor, the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, had passed to his own.
Roberts and the new justice could bring historic change to a court that has been divided 5-4 on controversial social issues.
The conservative Roberts is unlikely to depart greatly from positions taken by Rehnquist, but his interpersonal skills could make him more effective in building coalitions with moderate justices.
The replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor could shift the direction of the court more drastically because O'Connor sided with liberals on such issues as affirmative action, religion and abortion.
The White House has narrowed the list of possible O'Connor replacements to a handful, and President Bush is expected to announce his nominee within days.
The choice is a difficult one for the president because all of the leading contenders have downsides for the administration.
Those who have the intellectual strength and conservative legal outlook to change the direction of the court would either trigger a filibuster by Senate Democrats or would fail to add to the court's racial or gender diversity.
Leading contenders include Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and White House Counsel Harriet Miers, as well as two federal appeals court judges, Samuel Alito of New Jersey and Michael Luttig of Virginia.
But yesterday, the president was focusing on his widely praised choice of Roberts.
In his remarks just before Justice John Paul Stevens administered the oath to Roberts, Bush spoke about the "historic occasion for our country" with Roberts' confirmation as chief justice.
He praised Roberts' "intellectual gifts and broad experience," as well as his "impartiality and devotion to justice, his modesty and great personal decency."
Six of the current justices attended the ceremony at which Stevens, the court's most senior member, delivered the oath to Roberts while his wife, Jane, held the Bible.
Roberts, a Harvard-educated lawyer and skilled advocate who argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court, will return today to the marble courthouse where he has spent much of his professional life.
When the court begins its new term Monday, he will usher in a new era, taking the center seat on the court's bench that Rehnquist occupied for the previous 19 years.
His ascendancy, from being little known outside legal circles to the most prominent post in American law, was remarkably swift. But it came with a twist, given that he was initially nominated as an associate justice to replace O'Connor.
At 50, Roberts is the youngest chief justice in two centuries; all except one of his fellow justices are at least 15 years his senior. But even the court's more liberal justices, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have said they have great respect for Roberts' legal mind.
Roberts is the court's first new justice since Stephen G. Breyer joined the court 11 years ago, the longest period in history that a court with nine justices has gone without a new member.
It soon will have another, as Bush prepares to announce his nominee to replace O'Connor.
Earlier in the day, the Senate voted by a surprisingly wide, 78-22 margin to confirm Roberts. All 55 Senate Republicans and half of its 44 Democrats voted for Roberts, as did independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont.
Acknowledging the historic moment, all 100 senators stood at their seats throughout the vote, and many commented that Roberts likely would be chief justice for the rest of their lives.
"For many years to come, long after many of us have left public service, the Roberts court will be deliberating on some of the most difficult and fundamental questions of U.S. law," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.
Friends of Roberts said he had hoped to be confirmed by a comfortable margin because he believed it would send a message that the court is separate and distinct from the political institutions.
Roberts said as much in his remarks after he became chief justice.
"I view the vote this morning as confirmation of what, for me, is a bedrock principle, that judging is different from politics," he said after he was sworn in, looking at the dozens of senators and high-ranking government officials assembled in the room. "And I appreciate the vote very, very much."
During his confirmation hearings, Roberts emphasized that he would follow the rule of law and not his personal views in deciding cases. He said he saw a limited role for the courts, that they should take a back seat to legislatures on questions of social policy.
Democrats who opposed him said his writings as a lawyer in the Reagan administration reflected hostility to civil rights and women's rights and they needed to know more about Roberts' thinking than he was willing to reveal during the confirmation process.
"At the end of the day, I have too many unanswered questions about the nominee to justify confirming him to this lifetime seat," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who voted against confirming Roberts.
Jan Crawford Greenburg is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.