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Roberts expected to win nod as chief justice Thursday

Bush poised to name O'Connor replacement

Chief justice nominee John Roberts is virtually assured of Senate confirmation Thursday.



Supreme Court
George W. Bush
John Roberts

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a vote packed with more historical significance than any real suspense, the Senate is expected to easily confirm Judge John Roberts as the nation's new chief justice Thursday.

Senate approval will cap a two-month process surprisingly free of the partisan rancor widely expected when President Bush nominated Roberts in July.

However, with Bush poised to fill a second Supreme Court vacancy -- possibly within a day of the Roberts vote -- the question on Capitol Hill will be how long the era of good feelings might last.

"While this nomination did not warrant an attempt to block this nominee on the floor of the Senate, the next one might," warned Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, in a speech Wednesday. "I hope and pray the president chooses to unite, rather than divide -- that he chooses consensus over confrontation."

Next nominee

At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan called on the Senate to treat Bush's next nominee in the same "civil and dignified way" Roberts was treated.

"The president will nominate someone that all Americans can be proud of, someone who is highly qualified to serve on the highest court in our land," McClellan said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said Wednesday that at least 18 Democrats are on board in support of Roberts, 50, a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

With none of the Senate's 55 Republicans expected to oppose him, Roberts' vote total will likely top 70 votes.

Roberts originally was nominated in July to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. But after Chief Justice William Rehnquist died September 3, Bush picked him instead to be the nation's 17th chief justice.

Roberts sailed largely unscathed through his confirmation hearings, with even critics on the Judiciary Committee praising his intellect and legal knowledge.

Democrats express concern

However, some Democrats complained that he did not adequately answer their questions, after Roberts repeatedly deflected inquiries by insisting he could not comment on issues that might come before the high court.

Because O'Connor has been a moderate swing vote on the closely divided court, the battle over her replacement could prove more contentious than the comparatively mild tussle over Roberts' confirmation.

Bush administration officials close to the selection process have told CNN that Bush will announce his nominee to replace O'Connor as soon as Friday.

The focus of the search process has been on women and minority candidates, Bush sources confirm, although White House advisers are holding their cards close to the vest.

Roberts, a native of Buffalo, New York, grew up in Indiana before going east to Harvard for undergraduate studies and law school. A Roman Catholic, he is married with two small children.

Solicitor general's office

Roberts was principal deputy solicitor general during the administration of Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, presenting the administration's arguments before the high court.

His boss at the time was Kenneth Starr, who later became the Whitewater special prosecutor involved in former President Bill Clinton's impeachment case.

Roberts also served in the Reagan administration, first as special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith and then as associate White House counsel. He also was a law clerk for Rehnquist.

Roberts was confirmed in 2003 to the D.C. Circuit, considered the most influential federal court outside of the Supreme Court. However, approval of his nomination was delayed two years by Senate Democrats when they gained control of the chamber after Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont quit the Republican Party.

All told, Roberts waited 11 years to get confirmed to the federal appellate bench. He had been nominated to the same court by the elder President Bush in 1992, but his nomination did not come up for a vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate before the White House changed hands in January 1993.

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