Bush: fill Supreme Court vacancies promptly

George W. Bush on Sunday called late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist "a man of character and dedication" and pledged to move quickly to nominate a successor. "There are now two vacancies on the Supreme Court and it will serve the best interests of the nation to fill those vacancies promptly," Bush said. "I will choose in a timely manner a highly qualified nominee."

Rehnquist's death on Saturday from thyroid cancer leaves a rare two openings on the high court and gives Bush the chance to move it to the right for decades to come. Bush's choice, which must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will be subject to intense political scrutiny given the enormous power the court wields at the top of the judicial branch of the U.S. government.

Rehnquist died a month before the court was to open its new session, and only days before the U.S. Senate was to open hearings on appeals court Judge John Roberts, whom Bush chose in July to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Bush hailed the career of the conservative justice who pushed the closely divided nine-member court to the right in his more than 30 years on the bench.

"I was honored and I was deeply touched when he came to the Capitol for the swearing-in last January," Bush said of the ailing chief justice's appearance at his second inauguration. "He was a man of character and dedication. His departure represents a great loss for the court and for our country."

For Bush, the second opening is a welcome if not unexpected opportunity to reshape the court, which has not had two openings since 1971. Rehnquist had been battling cancer for more than a year and the White House had been preparing to name his replacement before O'Connor's surprise announcement she was stepping down. Rehnquist carved out a record as one of the most conservative jurists in U.S. history on the court closely divided on such contentious issues as abortion, the death penalty and separation of church and state. The Supreme Court's decisions on constitutional issues are final, Reuters reports.

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