October 3, 2005

Supreme Court enters the John Roberts era

By David Wiessler

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At 10:35 a.m., new Chief Justice
John Roberts opened the 2005-2006 Supreme Court session on
Monday and launched the highest U.S. judicial body into the
Roberts era, which could last for decades.

"On behalf of all the members of the court, it is a
pleasure to extend to you a warm welcome," Justice John Paul
Stevens told the conservative Roberts before the official
opening in a brief ceremony attended by President George W.

Stevens wished Roberts "a long and happy career in our
common calling" as the country's 17th chief justice. Roberts
succeeds his mentor, William Rehnquist, who died a month ago
after 33 years as the court's foremost conservative voice.

Roberts, at 50, is the youngest chief justice in more than
two centuries. He takes over a court in which every other
member has as least 11 years seniority and one, Stevens, has
30. In a lifetime post, Roberts could have a major impact on
the legal system.

Roberts, who spoke of the need of judges to be modest
before his confirmation, entered the courtroom with his eight
fellow justices dressed in a plain black robe like them.

Gone were the four gold stripes Rehnquist added to each
sleeve before presiding over the Senate impeachment trial of
President Bill Clinton in 1999 -- an adornment inspired by a
costume in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera.

Roberts said he was happy to announce the opening of the
session that will run until June, then immediately went into
the first arguments of the term.

Historically, the court has made momentous decisions in all
facets of American life, from national security and business,
to powers of the president and the U.S. Congress, to social
issues like abortion and civil rights.

The names of the famous cases resonate through American
history -- Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board of Education, Roe
v. Wade, Nixon v. U.S.A., and the one that decided the 2000
presidential race, Bush v. Gore.

Roberts' first argument was the combined cases of IBP Inc.
v. Alvarez and Tum v. Barber Foods over whether meat-processors
must pay workers for the time involved in walking to areas and
waiting for protective clothing they are required to don.

His first exchange in the session came on an arcane legal
point. "So you appear really to introduce a third concept," he
asked one of the lawyers.

In response the questioning, the lawyer responded by
starting, "Well, what you are doing Mr. Chief Justice..." It
was the first time during an argument that Roberts was called
by his new title.

Roberts asked fewer than a dozen questions but was
attentive throughout, looking directly at the justices and

The ceremony was overshadowed by Bush's early morning
announcement that he had selected White House counsel Harriet
Miers to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a
moderate conservative who often casts the decisive vote on the
closely divided court.

The White House said Bush called Roberts about 7 a.m. with
the news.

O'Connor, who is staying on until a replacement is sworn
in, participated in Monday's argument, asking about four
questions. Unless the court issues an opinion before she
leaves, she will have no role in any of the cases she hears.

While all nine members of the Supreme Court have an equal
vote, it is often the chief justice whose leadership defines
its direction. Thus major periods of the court are referred to
by the chief justice's name, such as the Rehnquist Court or the
Warren Court named for the liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren in
the 1950s and 1960s.

(Additional reporting by James Vicini)