WASHINGTON - A divided Democratic caucus on Wednesday assured Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. of a comfortable, bipartisan Senate confirmation as the nation's 17th chief justice, the youngest in 200 years.
Many say they would have chosen someone else for the position, yet 21 Senate Democrats agreed he has "a brilliant legal mind" and will be among the 76 senators - more than three-fourths of the 100-member Senate - who say they plan to vote to confirm the 50-year-old Roberts as the successor to the late William H. Rehnquist.
Democrats are uniting, however, in sending the White House a warning not to nominate a conservative ideologue to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. President Bush is expected to nominate O'Connor's replacement soon after Roberts is sworn in as chief justice.
"While this nomination did not warrant an attempt to block the nominee on the floor of the Senate, the next one might," said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was out front on filibusters of Bush's lower court judicial nominees and is one of the 20 Democrats who have announced their opposition to Roberts.
Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas is one of the 21 Democrats who have announced support for Roberts, yet he too cautioned the White House on the upcoming pick, saying, "If Bush nominates another conservative activist judge, there will be problems in the Senate."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., condemned talk of blocking Bush's next Supreme Court pick, but also urged the White House to nominate "in the mold of Judge Roberts," who has gone through the Senate relatively unscathed from the day Bush tapped him as the nation's 109th Supreme Court justice.
"If the president can find someone in Judge Roberts' mold, I think by putting up that nominee, he disarmed his opponents," Specter said.
Roberts is expected to have a long tenure as chief justice.
Not since John Marshall, confirmed in 1801 at 45, has there been a younger chief. Oliver Ellsworth was 50 - about six weeks from turning 51; And John Jay, the first chief justice, was 44. He served from 1789-1795.
Roberts, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, grew up in Long Beach, Ind., working summers in the same steel mill where his father was an electrical engineer and serving as high school class president and captain of the football team.
After graduating with honors from Harvard - both in undergraduate and law school - he clerked for William H. Rehnquist when he was an associate justice on the Supreme Court and later worked as a prominent lawyer and judge in Washington. He argued 39 cases in front of the Supreme Court, and was considered one of the nation's best appellate lawyers before being tapped for the federal appeals court.
Roberts has drawn fire for his conservative views on women's issues and civil rights but also disarmed many Democratic senators with a smooth performance before the Judiciary Committee. He spoke without notes for four days and jousted with senators who unsuccessfully tried to pin down how he'd rule once he's confirmed as chief justice.
"No one disputes that Judge Roberts has a brilliant legal mind," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., adding that he believes Roberts is not as conservative as Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
If Democrats voted against Roberts as a bloc, it would give Republicans a reason to block the next Democratic president's nominee if they are still in charge of the Senate, Wyden said. "A sword forged in ideology in 2005 can be used against a progressive nominee in 2009 with an equal disregard for the Constitution and the individual," he said.
Senators are expecting a more partisan fight over Bush's replacement for O'Connor. She often has been a swing vote, a majority maker whose replacement could signal a shift on the court on many contentious issues including abortion and affirmative action.
Roberts makes it harder for the White House, given how well his nomination was accepted by the Senate, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas and a member of the Judiciary Committee. "If the president picks a nominee close to the quality of John Roberts, then I don't think there will be a fight," he said.
Democrats say if Bush sends up any of the nominees they filibustered earlier this year - like federal appellate judges Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor or Hispanic lawyer Miguel Estrada - they will fight to the bitter end.
"The nomination of any of these individuals to the Supreme Court would represent an unnecessary provocation and would be met by substantial opposition in the Senate," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and top Judiciary Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont said in a Wednesday letter to the White House.