President Bush's nominee to the first vacancy on the Supreme Court in 11 years is described as a conservative but not always predictable jurist on record as saying he is against Roe v. Wade.
The president on Tuesday announced he was nominating John G. Roberts Jr., a judge on the United States Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., who once clerked for Chief Justice William Renhquist, to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who announced her retirement July 1.
Bush described Roberts' qualifications as "experience, wisdom, fairness and civility" and urged quick confirmation by the Senate. "He has profound respect for the rule of law," Bush said. "He will strictly apply the constitutional laws, not legislate from the bench."
Roberts, 50, once signed a brief before the Supreme Court arguing that the 1973 opinion establishing a woman's right to abortion was "wrongly decided and should be overruled," according to a profile by Legal Times.
But observers say since joining the appeals court since May 2003, Roberts has written few opinions to suggest how he might rule on particular issues, earning him comparisons to Justice David Souter, who issued moderate to liberal rulings after being appointed in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush.
Religious conservatives, who took credit for helping Bush win a second term last November, anxiously anticipated Bush's candidate to replace O'Connor, 75, the first woman to be appointed as a Supreme Court justice and often a swing vote in controversial decisions.
Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said in a statement July 1 that Justice O'Connor's "retirement opens the door for the opportunity that tens of millions of Americans have been praying for more than a decade."
"George W. Bush's long-term legacy as president will in all probability hinge on whether he now keeps his promise to nominate only judges and justices who fit the Scalia-Thomas, original-intent-jurist mold," Land said. "For President Bush, social conservatives and the senators they helped elect, the moment of truth has arrived."
Land told the Tennessean that millions of conservatives voted for Bush because he promised them in 2000 and 2004 he would nominate only justices who interpret the Constitution according to the authors' original intent.
"There's no issue that traditional values, conservative Southern Baptists and other conservative people of faith care about any more than the runaway activism of the judiciary," Land said.
Jerry Falwell rushed out a "grassfire petition" July 4 telling President Bush "that we mean business and will back him all the way as he fulfills his promise to nominate a true conservative to the Supreme Court who believes in upholding the constitution, protecting unborn life and the sanctity of one-man/one-woman marriage."
The Family Research Council announced it was sponsoring a second "Justice Sunday" telecast, to rally conservative Christians for a confirmation battle, Aug. 14 in Nashville.
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics, meanwhile, said he hoped Bush "has acted for the common good with a centrist nominee, instead of a one-eyed ideologue who will prefer corporate profit over the public interest, pinch the advancement of civil rights and punch a hole in the wall of separation between church and state."
On July 6 Bush urged civility in the debate over the Supreme Court vacancy, asking the Senate not to listen to "the special interest groups, particularly those on the extremes."
"I hope the United States Senate conducts themselves in a way that brings dignity to the process, and that senators don't listen to the special interest groups, particularly those on the extremes that are trying to exploit this opportunity for not only their, what they might think is right, but also for their own fundraising capabilities," he said.
"Our nation deserves, and I will select, a Supreme Court justice that Americans can be proud of," he pledged.
In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Bush promised a nominee who will be "a fair-minded individual who represents the mainstream of American law and American values" and will "faithfully interpret the Constitution and laws of our country."
Amid speculation on Tuesday that Bush might appoint a woman justice, he said he would consider only "people who will not legislate from the bench. That's what I told the people when I ran for president."
Bush urged the Senate to conduct a "dignified" confirmation process that "rises above partisanship."
But Parham said if Roberts is found to be outside the mainstream, moderate Republicans and Democrats should "provide the kind of constitutionally required advice that will lead to another nominee."
This is the first Supreme Court vacancy since 1994, when President Clinton nominated Stephen Breyer. President Reagan appointed O'Connor, who took her seat as associate justice on September 25, 1981.
"The fact that Bush was unable to find a woman or person of color is most unfortunate," said Parham. "The fact that he pays so much attention to Christian fundamentalists is worrisome."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.