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Uncertainty Surrounds Next Supreme Court Nomination


And as we've just heard, the virtual certainty of John Roberts' confirmation stands in stark contrast to the enormous uncertainty surrounding the next Supreme Court nomination. President Bush is expected to name his choice to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor soon. In the Senate, all sides are girding for what this time could be a highly contentious nomination. NPR's David Welna has more.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

While the Senate spent the week ostensibly debating John Roberts, many senators clearly had their minds on the next Supreme Court nomination. Arlen Specter is the moderate Republican who presided over Roberts' confirmation hearings and who'll do the same with the next nominee. He lobbied President Bush on that nomination from the Senate floor.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): As the president ponders the nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, it is my hope that there will be balance maintained in the court.

WELNA: Because O'Connor's been a swing vote on an evenly divided court, those calling for balance are widely understood to be saying, `Don't nominate a strong conservative. It could tilt the court further to the right.' Patrick Leahy, who's the top Democratic on the Judiciary Committee and who supports Roberts, argued that this next nomination is an opportunity for Mr. Bush to mend a torn nation.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): For the sake of all Americans, no matter what their politics might be, I urge the president to make a choice that unites us.

WELNA: Another Judiciary Committee Democrat, New York's Charles Schumer, warned yesterday that some potential nominees could lead to a fight in the Senate. Those he named included two women recently confirmed as appellate judges--Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen. But Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, who's also on the Judiciary panel, says Brown and Owen are exactly the kind of person President Bush should nominate.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): Well, both of those came through. Both of those were passed with--eventually and by the Senate with strong votes, but--and I think both would be exceptionally find justices.

WELNA: Other Senate Republicans also want the next nominee to be a strong conservative, and they expect that nominee could be confirmed because in a bid earlier this year to avert a showdown over filibusters, seven Senate Democrats promised they would only back a vote-blocking filibuster under extraordinary circumstances. Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum says that sharply limits the Democrats' options.

Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican, Pennsylvania): I don't think they'll try to filibuster. I trust that the seven Democrats who've said that filibuster is off the table for highly qualified nominees will find whoever the president puts forward as--for this position I'm sure will be highly qualified and will not be subject to a filibuster.

WELNA: But at least one of those seven Democrats says his caucus would be justified in a filibuster if either Janice Rogers Brown or Priscilla Owen is the nominee. Colorado's Ken Salazar says neither one of them is qualified to serve on the high court.

Senator KEN SALAZAR (Democrat, Colorado): If it's a crazy person to be confirmed to the US Supreme Court, yes, you know, to me, that's an extraordinary circumstance and I would hope that we would have Republicans and Democrats coming together saying, `No, that's the wrong choice.'

WELNA: Still, some of the seven Republicans who joined Salazar, and six other Democrats, and formed the so-called Gang of 14 earlier this year, are now saying President Bush deserves to have whomever he chooses. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham spoke yesterday on the Senate floor.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): If we get into the mud and start fighting each other over the second pick, because some people don't like how the election turned out, then we'll set a trend that will come back to haunt this body, haunt all future presidents and we'll be worse off as a nation.

WELNA: Graham and others are urging President Bush to nominate someone in the mold of John Roberts to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. But while Roberts would be taking the place of another conservative, the late William Rehnquist, as chief justice, the next nominee could have far more impact on the Supreme Court's rulings because of O'Connor's role as the court's fulcrum. With so much at stake, the battle that was never really joined over Roberts may well begin when President Bush announces the next nominee.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.