WASHINGTON - President Bush, giving Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts a White House sendoff Wednesday for the Senate confirmation process, voiced confidence he will get "a timely hearing, a fair hearing" on Capitol Hill.
Early Wednesday morning, Bush's choice to succeed Sandray Day O'Connor on the bench was all grins as he and the president emerged from a private breakfast to stroll before the cameras down the collanade to the Oval Office.
Conservative interest groups were elated, saying the president kept a campaign promise to nominate someone akin to conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
Pausing for a moment, Bush said conversations with senators the evening before had convinced him that "we're off to a very good start for his nomination" and promised Roberts "all the support that's necessary for the senators to be able to make up their minds."
Bush ignored questions about whether he would talk to Democratic senators who worry that Roberts would push the nation's highest court too far to the right on abortion and other polarizing issues.
"We discussed how important it is for Judge Roberts to get a fair hearing, a timely hearing and a hearing that will bring great credit to our nation," Bush said. "I wish him all the best."
Roberts headed to Capitol Hill for meetings with leaders in the Senate, which will decide whether he will replace O'Connor and thus become the first new Supreme Court member in more than a decade.
Abortion, indeed, will be a "hot button" issue in the confirmation process, former Sen. Fred Thompson, who will shepherd Roberts through the Senate confirmation process, said Wednesday.
But Thompson also said that lawmakers shouldn't read too much into Roberts' seemingly conflicting legal positions on the issue.
"Many of the positions he's taken are positions he took as an advocate ... representing a client," Thompson said on NBC"s "Today" show. He noted that Roberts had served as a deputy solicitor general - a policy advocate - in the first Bush administration.
In a brief that Roberts filed with the Supreme Court at that time, he said that Roe v. Wade "was wrongly decided and should be overruled." But he told senators during his 2003 confirmation hearings for his current appellate court post that the decision was "the settled law of the land." Appearing on CBS's "The Early Show," Thompson added that "one should not confuse a position a good lawyer takes in representing a client with his own personal views."
Bush introduced the 50-year-old Roberts to the nation Tuesday night, calling him a man with "a good heart" and a jurist who will "strictly apply the Constitution in laws - not legislate from the bench."
Reaction from Republican senators was overwhelmingly supportive.
Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee called for confirmation proceedings that "treat Judge Roberts with dignity and respect" and lead to a yes or no vote before the court's term begins Oct 3.
Democrats reacted more cautiously, but there were no instant predictions of a filibuster.
"The president has chosen someone with suitable legal credentials, but that is not the end of our inquiry," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the only woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will hold hearings on the nomination, said the new justice will be critical to the balance of the court, especially when it rules on cases involving congressional authority, a woman's right to privacy and environmental protections.
"I will keep my powder dry until the due diligence is completed," Feinstein said.
Conservative interest groups were elated, saying the president kept a campaign promise to nominate someone akin to conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. Liberal groups, meanwhile, expressed concerns about Roberts' views on abortion, religious freedom, environmental protections and the First Amendment.
"I'm just a little surprised that he's already subject to criticism, but this is America," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who joked that the 60 or so opinions Roberts has written will soon be on the "best seller list."
While he lacks national name recognition, the Harvard-educated Roberts is a Washington insider who has worked over the years at the White House, Justice Department and in private practice.
Roberts was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and raised in Long Beach, Ind., outside Gary. He was high school class president, captain of his football team and worked summers at a steel mill, where his father was an electrical engineer, to help pay his way through college
After graduating with honors from Harvard Law School, he clerked for William H. Rehnquist when he was an associate justice on the Supreme Court. It was Rehnquist who presided over the swearing-in ceremony when Roberts took his seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
"Before I became a judge, my law practice consisted largely of arguing cases before the court," said Roberts, who met with the president in the executive residence for an hour last Friday with Bush's Scottish terriers at their feet. "I always got a lump in my throat whenever I walked up those marble steps to argue a case before the court, and I don't think it was just from the nerves."
He was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1992 by the first President Bush and again by the president in 2001. The nominations died in the Senate both times. He was renominated in January 2003 and was confirmed by voice vote. At the time, his nomination to the appellate court attracted support from both sides of the ideological spectrum.
Liberal advocacy groups like the People for the American Way immediately began challenging Roberts' judicial views. The group sent out "emergency alerts" to more than 400,000 supporters, telling them to contact their senators posthaste and ask them to withhold judgment on Roberts until after the confirmation hearings are completed.
Just last week, Roberts was part of the unanimous three-judge panel that put the Bush administration's military tribunals in the war on terror back on track, clearing the way for the Pentagon to resume trials for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It is abortion, however, that swiftly emerged as a point of contention.
The National Organization for Women planned a demonstration against Roberts on Wednesday. And the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America cited that brief he had filed several years ago as deputy solicitor general for Bush's father.
In his defense, Roberts told senators during 2003 confirmation hearings to his current post that he would be guided by legal precedent. "Roe v. Wade is the settled law of the land. ... There is nothing in my personal views that would prevent me from fully and faithfully applying that precedent."
© 2005 Associated Press