President Bush moved quickly yesterday to fill the vacancy left by the death of William Rehnquist, nominating John Roberts to be Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.
Mr Roberts, an appeals court judge, had been named to take the seat on the court vacated by Sandra Day O’Connor, who announced her retirement in July.
But Mr Rehnquist’s death from thyroid cancer on Saturday at the age of 80 created a sudden, second opening, this time at the very top of the court.
Already beset by difficulties in Iraq and a domestic crisis over the Government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Mr Bush was eager to avoid another potentially complex and energy-sapping political fight over a candidate for America’s highest judicial position.
The Senate must approve the nomination, and despite a Republican majority there, Democrats can delay or even block it.
But since Mr Roberts was named in July, he has received a mostly favourable response, even from political opponents.
Though he seems to most observers to be a solidly conservative jurist, even Democrats acknowledge that he is ably qualified.
In the rapidly evolving political circumstances, the Senate was expected to postpone the hearings already scheduled for today for Mr Roberts’s first nomination, but he still looks likely to be installed in time for the court’s next session on October 3.