WASHINGTON — John Glover Roberts Jr. won confirmation as the 17th chief justice of the United States today, overwhelmingly approved by the Senate as the
jurist to lead the Supreme Court through turbulent social issues for generations to come.
The Senate voted 78-22 to confirm Roberts — a 50-year-old U.S. Court of
Appeals judge from the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Md. — as the successor
to the late William H. Rehnquist, who died earlier this month.
All of the Senate’s majority Republicans, and about half of the Democrats,
voted for Roberts.
Underscoring the rarity of a chief justice’s confirmation, senators answered
the roll by standing one by one at their desks as their names were called,
instead of voting and leaving the chamber.
Roberts was sworn in a little more than three hours later, taking his oath at a White House ceremony attended by President Bush and other justices of the Supreme Court.
Bush said it was “a very meaningful event in the life of our nation” — almost 19 years to the day since Rehnquist took his oath in the same room at the White House, the East Room.
The oath was delivered by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Court’s senior member and acting chief justice since Rehnquist’s death early this month.
“The Senate has confirmed a man with an astute mind and kind heart,” Bush said. “All Americans can be confident that the 17th chief justice of the United States will be prudent in exercising judicial power, firm in defending judicial independence and above all a faithful guardian of the Constitution.”
Roberts spoke briefly, saying that the bipartisan vote for his nomination was “confirmation of what is for me a bedrock principle, that judging is different from politics.”
He said he would try to “pass on to my children’s generation a charter of self-government as strong and as vibrant as the one that Chief Justice Rehnquist passed on to us.”
“What Daniel Webster termed the miracle of our Constitution is not something that happens in every generation, but every generation in its turn must accept the responsibility of supporting and defending the Constitution and bearing true faith and allegiance to it,” Roberts said.
The audience included Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and White House counsel Harriet Miers, both of whom have been mentioned as candidates for the Supreme Court seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Bush is expected to announce that nomination within days.
Roberts also took a separate oath during a private White House ceremony attended by the other justices and the chief justice’s family.
A formal Supreme court ceremony was scheduled for Monday morning, Oct. 3, before the opening of the term.
Roberts is the first new Supreme Court justice since 1994. Before becoming a
federal judge, Roberts was one of the nation’s best appellate lawyers, arguing
39 cases — many in front of the same eight justices he will now lead as chief
justice. He won 25 of those cases.
Roberts watched the Senate vote on television from the White House’s
Under Roberts, the justices will tackle issues including assisted suicide,
campaign-finance law and abortion this year, with questions about religion,
same-sex marriage, the government’s war on terrorism and human cloning looming
in the future.
“With the confirmation of John Roberts, the Supreme Court will embark upon a
new era in its history, the Roberts era,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill
Frist, R-Tenn., whose 55 GOP members unanimously voted for the multimillionaire
judge. “And 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.”
Twenty-two Democrats opposed Roberts, saying he could turn out to be as
conservative as Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court
anchors on the right.
“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 Democratic
leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Anti-abortion and abortion-rights activists both have their hopes pinned on
Roberts, a former government lawyer in the Reagan and the George H.W. Bush
administrations. While Roberts is solidly conservative and his wife, Jane,
volunteers for Feminists for Life, both sides are eager to see how he will vote
on abortion cases.
Roberts told senators during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation
hearings that past Supreme Court rulings carry weight, including the Roe v.
Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973. He also said he agreed with
the 1965 Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut that established
the right of privacy in the sale and use of contraceptives.
But he tempered that by saying Supreme Court justices can overturn
During four days of sometimes testy questioning by Democrats, Roberts refused
to hint how he would rule on cases.
“If the Constitution says that the little guy should win, then the little
guy’s going to win in the Court before me,” Roberts told senators. “But if the
Constitution says that the big guy should win, well then the big guy’s going to
win because my obligation is to the Constitution.”
Over and over, he has assured lawmakers his rulings would be guided by his
understanding of the facts of cases, the law and the Constitution, not by his
personal views. “My faith and my religious beliefs do not play a role,” said
Roberts, who is Catholic.
Roberts’ confirmation brings the number of Catholics on the Court to a
historic high of four. The Roman Catholic Church strongly opposes abortion.
Democrats, even as they complained about his Reagan-era opinions and the
White House’s refusal to release his paperwork from the George H.W. Bush
administration, acknowledged his brilliance and judicial demeanor.
“I’ve taken him at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda and
he will be his own man as chief justice,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont,
the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Republicans showered praise on Roberts, and said the justices on the Court
like him too. “There have already been indications from members of the Court
about their liking the fact that Judge Roberts is going to be the new chief
justice,” said Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who shepherded
the nomination out of his committee on a 13-5 vote.
Roberts has the potential of leading the Supreme Court for decades. Not since
John Marshall, confirmed in 1801 at 45, has there been a younger chief
Roberts also will hold a record of sorts — nominated to succeed two different
Supreme Court justices within seven weeks. Bush originally named him to succeed
retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in July. Rehnquist’s death led to the
second nomination on Sept. 6, and Roberts now will be confirmed as chief justice
while O’Connor remains on the Court until the president selects a new
Democrats already were warning the White House not to nominate a conservative
ideologue to replace O’Connor. Bush was expected to announce the nominee
“While this nomination did not warrant an attempt to block the nominee on the
floor of the Senate, the next one might,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Roberts is married to lawyer Jane Sullivan Roberts, and has two adopted
children, ages 4 and 5.
He grew up in Long Beach, Ind., working summers in the same steel mill where
his father was an electrical engineer. After graduating with honors from Harvard
University — both as an undergraduate and in law school — he clerked for
Rehnquist on the Supreme Court.