Bush faces rare opportunity to appoint second justice
WASHINGTONPresident Bush on Sunday called the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist a man of "character and dedication" and said he would work swiftly to fill the two openings at the Supreme Court.
"It will serve the best interest of the nation to fill those vacancies promptly," Bush said in brief remarks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Rehnquist died at home late Saturday after a long battle with cancer, an event that gives Bush the rare opportunity to name a second justice to the Supreme Court. In July, Bush nominated federal appellate judge John Roberts to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
"I will choose in a timely manner a highly qualified nominee to succeed Chief Justice Rehnquist," Bush said. "As we look to the future of the Supreme Court, citizens of this nation can also look with pride and appreciation on the career of our late chief justice."
Roberts' confirmation hearing in the Senate is scheduled to begin Tuesday, although there is some talk that the hearing could be postponed because of memorial services for the chief justice.
Bush said Rehnquist was respected for his "powerful intellect" and "deep commitment to the rule of law." Bush recalled being emotionally moved when Rehnquist, visibly ailing from thyroid cancer, attended the presidential inauguration to swear him in for his second term.
"Even during a period of illness, Chief Justice Rehnquist stayed on the job to complete the work of his final Supreme Court term," Bush said. "I was honored and I was deeply touched when he came to the Capitol for the swearing-in last January."
Bush added: "He was a man of character and dedication. His departure represents a great loss for the court and for our country."
The last time there were two vacancies on the court was in 1971, when Rehnquist himself was appointed to one of the openings created by the retirements of justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan.
Senators now face a tough choice: forge forward with Roberts' confirmation hearings during an official state mourning period, or delay the hearings out of respect and risk having the high court short two members when the new session starts Oct. 3.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Sunday that the confirmation process for Roberts should continue as scheduled so that the vacancy created by the O'Connor retirement can be filled before the court begins its term.
"We can do this," Cornyn said on "Fox News Sunday."
"If we just do what we prepared to do, and that is go forward with the Roberts hearing as scheduled . . . we can get him on the court, if that is the will of the Senate, before it reconvenes," Cornyn said.
But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also a member of the Judiciary Committee, called for the hearings to be delayed.
"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." "Judge Roberts was his law clerk, and Judge Rehnquist was Judge Roberts' mentor. I think it makes a good deal of sense for us to take time, catch our breath and take a few days out. "
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said Bush should consider asking O'Connor to rescind her retirement temporarily so the president would have more time to consider how to replace Rehnquist.
"It gives the president a bit more time to think this process through rather than try to jam decisions," Dodd said.
In front of the Supreme Court just before Bush spoke, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, stood with 15 other worshippers as they prayed for a replacement for Rehnquist who would encourage the acknowledgment of God in the public square.
There have been "so many negative decisions" out of the court, Mahoney said, especially the "tragic taking of life thru abortion."