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Roberts named to chief justice position at Supreme Court

President Bush urged the Senate on Monday to quickly confirm attorney John G. Roberts Jr. as the next chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

With Roberts at his side at the White House, Bush said it "is in the interest of the court and the country" to have a chief justice in place for the start of the October 2005-2006 term. The first day of oral arguments is October 3, when a critical Indian tax case will be heard.

"I'm confident that the Senate can complete hearings and confirm him as chief justice within a month," Bush said.

The announcement came just two days after the death of William H. Rehnquist, the 16th chief justice of the court, on Saturday night. Rehnquist, 80, died at his home in the Washington area, succumbing to thyroid cancer. The New York Times reported that he suffered from anaplastic thyroid cancer, the most aggressive form of the disease.

Roberts is a former clerk for Rehnquist, having worked at the court from 1980-1981. During this time, Rehnquist was an associate justice who participated in cases like Montana v. US, a seminal case that limited the civil jurisdiction of tribes.

If confirmed within the next four weeks, Roberts would be returning to familiar grounds. Beyond the tax case being heard on October 3, the court is being asked to consider several cases that could have significant impacts in Indian Country. Roberts would have a role in deciding if those cases are accepted or not.

But even if Roberts were seated in time, there is uncertainty on the court due to the pending resignation of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She announced her departure on July 1, prompting Bush to nominate Roberts to replace her as an associate.

The decision to name Roberts as chief justice, though, means there is no chance O'Connor's seat will be filled by October. This leaves open the possibility that certain cases could be decided on a 4-4 vote, a split that affirms the lower court decision without setting legal precedent.

In the case of Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation v. Richards, No. 04-631 [Docket Sheet], a 4-4 split could be beneficial for tribal interests. It would affirm a ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that the state of Kansas cannot impose a distribution tax on gasoline sold on reservations.

But the state of Kansas is also seeking Supreme Court review of another sovereignty case, involving car tags issued by the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Additionally, a different but related tax case involving a tribe from Nebraska that delivers gas to tribes in Kansas is on the 10th Circuit docket and could make its way up to the high court if the legal issues aren't settled.

For now, Roberts is preparing for his confirmation hearings that were due to start today. But they were delayed due the death of Rehnquist and relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina. The Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet announced when the new hearings will take place.

The Supreme Court itself will remain closed today and tomorrow in observance of Rehnquist's death. Rehnquist's body is being taken to the court building this morning, where he will lie in repose today and tomorrow. The public is invited to pay respects from 10:30am until 10pm on September 6 and from 10am until noon on September 7.

White House Announcement:
President Nominates Judge Roberts to be Supreme Court Chief Justice

Relevant Links:
Federal Judicial Nominees, DOJ -
NARF-NCAI Tribal Supreme Court Project -