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Bush dismisses court speculation

'There is no vacancy on the Supreme Court'

President Bush says he'll deal with a Supreme Court vacancy "when there is one."
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George W. Bush
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In his first news conference since his re-election, President Bush dismissed speculation Thursday that he could have a chance to fill a number of Supreme Court openings in his second term.

"There is no vacancy on the Supreme Court," Bush said, when asked if he would select a consensus candidate for the court. "I'll deal with a vacancy when there is one."

He made no mention of Chief Justice William Rehnquist's recent battle with thyroid cancer. (Rehnquist absent as high court returns)

The 80-year-old chief justice is recuperating at home after undergoing throat surgery last month related to the cancer. He was also being treated with chemotherapy and radiation. (Rehnquist released from hospital)

The youngest Supreme Court justice is 56 years old, the oldest is 83.

Bush reiterated that, whenever an opening does come, he would select someone "who knows the difference between personal opinion and strict interpretation of the law."

Bush told reporters to look at his record of appointments, saying it shows he selects "well-qualified people who know the law, who represent a judicial temperament that I agree with and who are qualified to hold the bench." (Possible Bush high court nominees)

More filibusters on the way?

In his first term, some of Bush's judicial appointees ignited a partisan fire keg, with Senate Democrats blocking votes on several of them. Democrats charged that the appointees were overly conservative, ideological nominees who were out of the mainstream.

Democrats used filibusters to block full Senate votes on confirming controversial nominees. Sixty Senate votes are needed to break a filibuster, and Republicans could only muster 53 -- seven short.

Before the election, Republicans controlled the Senate 51-48 with one Democratic-leaning independent. The election saw the GOP increase its Senate numbers by four -- to 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent.

To break further filibusters, the GOP would still need five Democrats to cross party lines.

Some observers say Bush's re-election makes it more likely that Rehnquist will retire. (Full story)

Specter: Advice on high court not a warning

After cautioning Bush a day earlier that he should be "mindful" of picking judicial candidates with a "broad range of acceptability," moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter issued a statement Thursday saying his comments were not meant as a warning.

"Contrary to press accounts, I did not warn the president about anything and was very respectful of his Constitutional authority on the appointment of federal judges," Specter said in a statement released on his Senate Web site.

"As the record shows, I have supported every one of President Bush's nominees in the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor. I have never and would never apply any litmus test on the abortion issue and, as the record shows, I have voted to confirm Chief Justice (William) Rehnquist, Justice (Sandra Day) O'Connor, and Justice (Anthony) Kennedy and led the fight to confirm Justice (Clarence) Thomas."

Specter, who won his fifth term from Pennsylvania in this week's election, is next in line to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, but he cautioned that his succeeding Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah is not certain until the committee meets and votes in January. Hatch is barred from another term as chairman because of term limits.

Specter said he supports prompt Judiciary Committee action on all nominees.

He also told reporters he doesn't believe Bush would make issues like abortion into tests for Supreme Court nominees.

"We start off with the basic fact that the Democrats have filibustered and you can expect them to filibuster if the nominees are not within the broad range of acceptability," Specter said. "And I think there is a very broad range of presidential discretion. But there is a range."

Overturning Roe v. Wade 'unlikely'

Noting that Bush said during the third campaign debate that he would "not impose a litmus test" for Supreme Court nominees, Specter said he "would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations I've mentioned."

He added that he thought the chance of overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, was "unlikely."

Specter, 74, also said he hopes the Senate has more input on Bush's judicial decisions more than it has in the past.

"The Constitution has a clause called advise and consent," he said. "The advise part is traditionally not paid attention to, I wouldn't say ignored, but close to that. It's my hope that the Senate will be more involved in expressing our views."

Specter said he has "some ideas" on potential nominees but declined to share them with reporters.

"If and when the president asks me that question, I'll have some specific information for him," he said.

He did say he would like to see more distinguished, even legendary, jurists on the high court.

"I'm saying we don't have anybody of the status of Oliver Wendell Holmes or Louis Brandeis or a (Benjamin) Cardozo or (Thurgood) Marshall," he said. "That we have a court which they're graduates from Courts of Appeals from the District of Columbia, basically, some other Circuit Courts of Appeals, and I think we could use a Holmes or a Brandeis."

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