US President George W. Bush on Monday nominated conservative Judge John Roberts, already his choice for a seat on the US Supreme Court, to replace late chief justice William Rehnquist.
"I'm confident that the Senate can complete hearings and confirm him as chief justice within a month," Bush said in a hastily called public appearance in the White House Oval Office. The court resumes work on Oct. 3.
The president, who had picked Roberts in July to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor after she announced that she was retiring, said he would announce a new nominee to replace her "in a timely manner."
Rehnquist, who served as chief justice for 19 of his 33 years on the Supreme Court, died on Saturday night from thyroid cancer at his home in Washington's suburbs.
The US Senate postponed Roberts' confirmation hearings, which had been set to open yesterday, to at least tomorrow and more likely early next week, according to a congressional source.
Roberts, 50, has spent time since his nomination meeting privately with senators, who will be called upon to vote on his confirmation after the hearings.
In picking the newcomer to fill the highest US judicial post, Bush sidestepped more controversial picks even as he grappled with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.
Democrats, who have been poring over Roberts' legal writings, said the new nomination required even closer scrutiny of his record, though most expert observers expect him to be confirmed.
"Now that the president has said he will nominate Judge Roberts as chief justice, the stakes are higher," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement. "The Senate must be vigilant in considering this nomination."
The nine-seat court wields enormous influence over American life as the final arbiter of the US Constitution and ultimate court of appeal, and has ruled on volatile issues like abortion, the death penalty and same-sex marriage. Justices serve for life but can step down.
The chief justice, in turn, sets the tone for the court, assigning cases, moderating private deliberations as well as the personal interactions and behind-the-scenes dealmaking that defines the court's operations.
Rehnquist's death and O'Connor's planned departure have given the president a chance to put a conservative stamp on the court for decades to come.
Democrats were expected to closely question Roberts, who was once a law clerk to Rehnquist, but the process has been delayed out of respect for the chief justice.
A senior Bush aide said that the White House was less concerned about when Roberts' confirmation hearings start and more focused on getting him confirmed by the time the court reconvenes.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that O'Connor had indicated she would serve until her replacement wins confirmation.
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