Supremes: Roberts--And Then The Real Battle

The confirmation battle over Judge John Roberts is about to take center stage. George W. Bush quickly nominated Roberts to serve as chief justice--a move the president had considered all along, according to one adviser close to the process who refused to be quoted because of the sensitivity of the deliberations. Roberts could face some tougher questioning as chief, but barring bombshells, the hearings could turn out to be a drama fit only for C-Span junkies.

Far more compelling is the battle among conservatives over who'll fill Sandra Day O'Connor's spot. In a new NEWSWEEK Poll, 66 percent of those surveyed said Bush should strongly consider choosing a woman; 60 percent suggested he choose a black or Hispanic. Bush himself teasingly stirred up speculation last week by singling out his friend, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, as a contender. Last spring, after Gonzales also surfaced on the White House shortlist, social conservatives launched a lobbying campaign against him. According to two sources close to Gonzales who did not wish to be quoted about the private discussions, Gonzales was "highly ambivalent" about joining the court. Just as he warmed to the idea, he was attacked by the right. "He was stung by the criticism," says one confidant. But Gonzales has become more enthusiastic. "Some of the terror of confirmation is gone, and I think he would like to be on the court now," says the source. This time around, Gonzales has authorized friends to rebut criticism on his behalf. "The conservative opposition to Gonzales is based on ignorance and a lack of information," says former White House lawyer Bradford Berenson.

Gonzales's critics are changing tactics, too. According to one conservative activist who did not want to speak publicly about his talks with the White House, some are quietly suggesting Bush nominate Gonzales--but only after liberal Justice John Paul Stevens, 85, retires. Democrats hope sagging poll numbers may force Bush toward a more moderate pick. "We are saying exactly what we said before O'Connor," says one Democratic Senate aide who requested anonymity to speak more freely about the process, "but the political reality is, his numbers are low." Many of the names being floated are either women or minorities. Bush has hinted that he'd consider a candidate without judicial experience--perhaps opening the way for former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson, an African-American corporate lawyer who's never been a judge. Fifth Circuit Judge and fellow Texan Priscilla Owen was just confirmed by the Senate this spring. Sixth Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder, Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones and Washington lawyer Miguel Estrada are also being mentioned. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who spoke with White House counsel Harriet Miers last week, says no definitive decision on the timing of a new pick has been made but it will likely come after the Roberts nomination reaches the Senate floor.

Supremes: Roberts--And Then The Real Battle | News