WASHINGTON - John Glover Roberts Jr. became the 17th chief justice of the United States Thursday, overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate to lead the Supreme Court through turbulent social issues for generations to come.
The Senate voted 78-22 to confirm Roberts - a 50-year-old U.S. Appeals judge from the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Md. - as the successor to the late William H. Rehnquist, who died earlier this month. All of the Senate's majority Republicans, and about half of the Democrats, voted for Roberts.
Underscoring the rarity of a chief justice's confirmation, senators answered the roll by standing one by one at their desks as their names were called, instead of voting and leaving the chamber.
Roberts is the first new Supreme Court justice since 1994. Before becoming a federal judge, Roberts was one of the nation's best appellate lawyers, arguing 39 cases - many in front of the same eight justices he will now lead as chief justice.
He won 25 of those cases.
Roberts watched the Senate vote on television from the White House's Roosevelt Room. He and his wife Jane, were then to have lunch with President Bush and first lady Laura Bush, followed by a swearing-in ceremony at the White House so he could take his seat in time for the new court session Monday.
Under Roberts, justices will tackle issues like assisted suicide, campaign finance law and abortion this year, with questions about religion, same-sex marriage, the government's war on terrorism and human cloning looming in the future.
"With the confirmation of John Roberts, the Supreme Court will embark upon a new era in its history, the Roberts era," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., whose 55 GOP members unanimously voted for the multimillionaire judge. "And for many years to come, long after many of us have left public service, the Roberts court will be deliberating on some of the most difficult and fundamental questions of U.S. law."
Twenty-two Democrats opposed Roberts, saying he could turn out to be as conservative as justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court anchors on the right.
"At the end of the day, I have too many unanswered questions about the nominee to justify confirming him to this lifetime seat," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Anti-abortion and abortion rights activists both have their hopes pinned on Roberts, a former government lawyer in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. While Roberts is solidly conservative and his wife, Jane, volunteers for Feminists for Life, both sides were eager to see how he will vote on abortion cases.
Roberts told senators during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings that past Supreme Court rulings carry weight, including the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973. He also said he agreed with the 1965 Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut that established the right of privacy in the sale and use of contraceptives.
But he tempered that by saying Supreme Court justices can overturn rulings.
During four days of sometimes testy questioning by Democrats, Roberts refused to hint how he would rule on cases.
"If the Constitution says that the little guy should win, then the little guy's going to win in the court before me," Roberts told senators. "But if the Constitution says that the big guy should win, well then the big guy's going to win because my obligation is to the Constitution."
Over and over, he has assured lawmakers his rulings would be guided by his understanding of the facts of cases, the law and the Constitution, not by his personal views. "My faith and my religious beliefs do not play a role," said Roberts, who is Catholic.
Roberts' confirmation brings the number of Catholics on the court to a historic high of four. The Roman Catholic Church strongly opposes abortion.
Democrats, even as they complained about his Reagan-era opinions and the White House's refusal to release his paperwork from the George H.W. Bush administration, acknowledged his brilliance and judicial demeanor.
"I've taken him at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda and he will be his own man as chief justice ," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary. "I take him as his word that he will steer the court to serve as an appropriate check on the potential abuses of presidential power, not just today but tomorrow."
Republicans showered praise on Roberts, and said the justices on the court like him too. "There have already been indications from members of the court about their liking the fact that Judge Roberts is going to be the new chief justice," said Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who shepherded the nomination out of his committee on a 13-5 vote.
Roberts has the potential of leading the Supreme Court for decades. Not since John Marshall, confirmed in 1801 at 45, has there been a younger chief justice.
Roberts also will hold a record of sorts - nominated to succeed two different Supreme Court justices within seven weeks. Bush originally named him to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in July. Rehnquist's death led to the second nomination on Sept. 6, and Roberts now will be confirmed as chief justice while O'Connor remains on the court until the president selects a new replacement.