A Radical Robert's Court
by Mary Lynn F. Jones
With a shortened timetable and a higher position at stake, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will today begin considering the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to serve as the 17th chief justice of the United States.
Already, Roberts -- who was first tapped to succeed retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, then nominated to the court's top job after the death earlier this month of Chief Justice William Rehnquist -- had the opportunity at age 50 to shape the court for decades to come. If confirmed, he would be the youngest chief justice since the legendary John Marshall in 1801.
Although the chief justice's vote counts the same as those of his eight colleagues, he has more than 60 statutory duties, which include running the justices' conferences; deciding who among the justices should draft decisions; setting the initial agenda as to which cases the court should consider; and leading the Judicial Conference, which, among other things, issues ethics guidelines for federal judges.
The chief justice also presides over impeachment trials; chooses members of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which allows the government to conduct secret national security surveillance; and serves as the head of the judicial branch of government.
Given the responsibilities of the job -- and President Bush's chance to nominate a second candidate to succeed O'Connor -- choosing about a quarter of the court's members will likely be one of Bush's most important acts as president.
Roberts' confirmation hearings, originally slated to begin last week, were delayed due to Rehnquist's death and congressional response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Senate Republicans hope the Judiciary Committee hearings -- which will include opening statements today, as well as testimony from Roberts and more than two dozen other witnesses -- will wrap up later this week. That would allow the entire Senate to vote on Roberts' nomination the week of Sept. 26, so he can be seated before the court's new term begins on Oct. 3.
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