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Supreme Court enters Roberts era

Bush picks Harriet Miers to replace O'Connor



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John Roberts

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court's 2005-2006 term got off to an eventful start on Monday with John Roberts hearing his first case as chief justice of the United States and President Bush naming his pick to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Then there was the business of the day -- the justices were hearing arguments in an employment rights case and a Native American sovereignty case.

Roberts took his place on the court after a special investiture ceremony. He was sworn in by Justice John Paul Stevens, who served as head of the court following the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist last month. (Watch Supreme Court kicks off new session -- :44)

Stevens wished Roberts "a long and happy career in our happy calling."

Roberts wore a plain, black robe for the ceremony, choosing not to have the gold arm stripes that Rehnquist had adopted. He sat in a chair once used by Chief Justice John Marshall.

The president attended the ceremony, shortly after he nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to replace O'Connor. (Full story)

Bush announced his choice in a televised Oval Office event saying, "For the past five years, Harriet Miers has served in critical roles in our nation's government."

Miers said she was grateful and humbled by the nomination. (Watch: Miers has no judicial experience -- 2:30)

"It is the responsibility of every generation to be true to the founders' vision of the proper role of the courts in our society," she said. (Full story)

If confirmed by the Senate, Miers, 60, would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second sitting female justice on the bench. O'Connor became the court's first female justice in 1981.

Miers, who has never been a judge, was the first woman to serve as president of the State Bar of Texas and Dallas Bar Association. She also was a member of the Dallas City Council. (Miers' background)

The choice to replace O'Connor, a key swing vote, could be pivotal. (Full story)

The Supreme Court's fall term is expected to include rulings on several controversial cases. (Case list)

On Tuesday, the court is scheduled to hear arguments over whether an Oregon law allowing physician-assisted suicide is constitutional. The voter-approved referendum allows physicians to prescribe lethal doses of medicine to terminally ill patients who express a strong, clear desire to end their lives.

The Bush administration, usually a champion of states' rights, has said Oregon's law conflicts with the federal government's power over how drugs are prescribed and administered.

Doctors could be jailed or have their licenses revoked if the federal government prevails.

"The issue of physician-assisted suicide is tied into what President Bush calls 'the culture of life.' So this is a real emotional issue for them [conservatives]," said Edward Lazarus, a Supreme Court analyst. "And it's likely to be a very close ruling at the court, with Roberts again, perhaps, a key vote."

Most-watched case

Abortion also tops the court's current docket. The most-watched case deals with a New Hampshire law requiring minors to get parental permission before undergoing the procedure unless a woman's life is in danger.

A federal appeals court ruled that exception was not broad enough, since it did not include a woman's health.

"This law does seem to be crafted to demand some kind of Supreme Court review," Lazarus said. "Because it really goes to this question of how much you have to protect the life versus the health of the mother. ... And it actually could be one of those cases that could turn on John Roberts' vote."

That case is to be heard in late November.

The court also will hear a longstanding dispute over legal protection for reproductive clinics against anti-abortion protesters. Next spring, the justices could confront another simmering issue: whether to continue to permit use of a late-term procedure critics call "partial-birth" abortion.

The justices in 2000 blocked states from enforcing a ban on such abortions, since those laws also did not provide for the health of a woman.

Youngest justice

The 50-year-old Roberts will lead a bench on which seven of the nine members are more than 65. At 57, only Justice Clarence Thomas approaches him in age.

When a new justice arrives there is "a certain amount of delicate politicking" among the justices, Lazarus said.

"Both sides are going to be feeling out Chief Justice Roberts to see what kinds of arguments appeal to him," he said. "What kind of person is he? Is he going to be someone who is going to be harder-edged, like a [Antonin] Scalia or a Thomas, or he is going to be the kind of very collegial person he's reputed to be?"

One thing that will help Roberts in the transition is that he clerked for Rehnquist, then an associate justice, in 1980-81, and colleagues have said the young lawyer learned valuable lessons in law and leadership from his mentor.

Rehnquist died September 3 after battling thyroid cancer for months. Two days later, Roberts was nominated to replace him.

Roberts was sworn in Thursday, less than four hours after the Senate voted 78-22 to confirm him. He got to work quickly, putting in a full day at the court Friday. (Full story)

In confirmation hearings, Roberts hinted at increasing the court's docket of cases, which had dropped by nearly half since Rehnquist took over in 1986.

The justices hear about 80 appeals, and there have been complaints that the court ignores too many important issues.

CNN's Bill Mears contributed to this report.

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