WASHINGTON (AP) — John Glover Roberts Jr. won confirmation as the 17th chief justice of the United States on Thursday, charged by the Senate with the responsibility of leading the Supreme Court through turbulent social issues for generations to come.
He was scheduled to be sworn in at the White House later today by Justice John Paul Stevens, the court’s senior member and acting chief justice since the death of William H. Rehnquist.
The Senate voted 78-22 to confirm Roberts — a 50-year-old U.S. appeals judge from the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Md. — as Rehnquist’s successor. All 55 of the Senate’s majority Republicans, and 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.
“Chief Justice Roberts is someone that the American people will be proud of for many years to come,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said after the vote.
Roberts is the first new Supreme Court justice since 1994. Before becoming a federal judge, he 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.
President Bush joined Roberts, former Sen. Fred Thompson and White House staff in the Roosevelt Room to watch the vote. After the 50th vote was cast, McClellan said Roberts “nodded and expressed his appreciation in a very humble way. And the president shook his hand and congratulated him.”
After lunch with the president, Roberts was being sworn in quickly so he could take his seat for the new court session Monday. All Supreme Court justices except Antonin Scalia were expected to be at the White House ceremony, along with Bush and several Cabinet members and senators.
Under Roberts, justices will tackle issues that include 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. “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 first Bush administrations. While Roberts is solidly conservative and his wife, Jane, volunteers for Feminists for Life, both sides were 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 rulings.
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.
Many 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.
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 justice.
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 replacement — an announcement expected soon.
Democrats already were warning the White House not to nominate a conservative ideologue to replace O’Connor.
“While this nomination did not warrant an attempt to block the nominee on the floor of the Senate, the next one might,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said.
Roberts and his wife have 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.