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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 September 2005, 08:37 GMT 09:37 UK
Choosing a new US chief justice
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

US President George W Bush faces one of the most important decisions of his presidency after the death of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist opened a second vacancy in the country's top judicial body.

Supreme Court exterior
The Supreme Court rules on issues that affect the fabric of US life

Advocates from all parts of the political spectrum will soon start mobilising to defend their interests in a fight that could affect the court's balance of power on issues such as abortion, civil liberties and gay rights.

A number of individuals have already been touted as potential front-runners to succeed Mr Rehnquist, among them are appeals court Judge John G Roberts, who has already been nominated for a Supreme Court seat, as well as Judge J Michael Luttig and even Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

But the first step will be for the president formally to nominate a successor - either a direct substitute for Mr Rehnquist, or someone to take the place of whichever justice is promoted to the top job.

Reports suggest the White House has already narrowed its list to a handful of federal appeals court judges and has interviewed leading contenders.

SUPREME COURT HISTORY
1987: Democrats derail Reagan's Supreme Court nominee Robert H Bork
1991: Last contested nomination involved Clarence Thomas who narrowly won confirmation
1994: The last high-court vacancy

But it will be up to Mr Bush to decide how quickly to make a nomination - and how quickly to push for confirmation hearings.

When the Senate receives a nomination it will send the name to its Judiciary Committee for consideration.

At this stage, the extensive battle plans of advocacy groups will swing into full effect, publicly supporting or attacking the nomination.

The committee will set aside time to review and investigate the nominee, then begin a series of hearings on the nomination.

POSSIBLE CANDIDATES
John G Roberts
J Michael Luttig
Alberto Gonzales
J Harvie Wilkinson III
Samuel Alito
Michael W McConnell
Emilio M Garzae
Theodore B Olson
Miguel Estrada

Unlike hearings on nominations to lower courts - which are usually over in a day and which involve no external witnesses - the Supreme Court hearings will hear from those who support and oppose the nomination.

The committee will vote on the nominee, then by tradition send the name to the full Senate regardless of how the vote goes.

Senators then debate the nomination, and confirm him or her through a majority vote.

If the nomination is filibustered - deliberately delayed - three-fifths of the Senate is needed to end debate and force a vote.

Bruising battles

The Supreme Court vacancy is the second this year, after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced she was stepping down in July.

The last successful fight against a Supreme Court nominee involved Ronald Reagan's pick, Robert Bork, in 1987.

US Senate
A majority vote in the Senate is needed to confirm the nomination

The narrow confirmation of Clarence Thomas in 1991 was the last contested nomination, just four years after the conservative Bork's rejection.

However, analysts suggest the forthcoming battle could be bigger than ever because it is the first in the era of 24-hour cable news networks and the internet.

It also comes at a time of enormous polarisation between Republicans and Democrats, but in particular between conservative and liberal America.

If one of the justices on the very right of the current Supreme Court - Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas - were promoted to chief justice, experts say the whole tone of the court would change.

Contenders

Reports suggest the White House is prepared to move quickly on the issue. Those in the frame include:

John G Roberts
This 50-year-old appeals court judge for the DC circuit has already been nominated by President Bush to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who resigned from the Supreme Court in July. He was due to face a Senate confirmation hearing this week, although it may be postponed followed William Rehnquist's death.

He is a solid conservative, considered one of the top appellate lawyers to argue before the Supreme Court, and has served as deputy solicitor general as well as clerked for Mr Rehnquist.

J Michael Luttig
A conservative, aged 51, seen as espousing Mr Rehnquist's positive views towards state rights. He is a federal appeals court judge in Virginia, known for a sharp intellect. President Bush's father put him on the appeals court.

Alberto Gonzales
As the current attorney general, he is reported to have been part of the vetting process for candidates. But the 49-year-old is well trusted by the president and would be the first Hispanic appointment.

J Harvie Wilkinson III
At 61 years old he is one of the oldest of the likely contenders. But this federal appeals court judge has an established conservative record. He was nominated to the circuit bench by Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Samuel Alito
Like Mr Luttig, he was nominated to the appeals court by Mr Bush's father. Also worked in the Reagan administration's Justice Department and became US attorney for New Jersey in 1987, a post he held for three years. Seen as a staunch conservative.




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