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Exactly a month after the death of William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court last week opened a new chapter in its history under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who quickly showed himself to be an active questioner and strict timekeeper from the bench. The first day of the Court’s fall term began early Oct. 3, with senior Justice John Paul Stevens administering a ceremonial oath to Roberts, who had been sworn in more formally the previous Thursday. President George W. Bush looked on from the seat in the Court reserved for — but rarely used by — the president. Just 75 minutes earlier, Bush had announced the nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Court. “We now look to the future,” said Stevens, in welcoming remarks that also celebrated Rehnquist’s 33-year tenure on the Supreme Court. Stevens congratulated Bush and the Senate for the “wisdom and diligence” that earned Roberts confirmation in time to begin the Court’s term. Stevens also noted that in his previous career in the Solicitor General’s Office and in private practice, Roberts had argued 39 cases before the Court, “a number that exceeds the combined experience of the rest of us. We know him well, and he has already earned our respect and admiration.” Also in the audience at the Court were dozens of senators, Supreme Court practitioners, and judges from throughout the country, including several who had been mentioned as possible nominees to the high court: private practitioners Maureen Mahoney and Miguel Estrada, federal appeals Judges J. Michael Luttig, J. Harvie Wilkinson III and Janice Rogers Brown, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. All of them had been turned into also-rans by Bush’s sudden early-morning announcement that he would nominate Miers to replace O’Connor. O’Connor announced her plans to retire in July but agreed to stay on until her replacement was confirmed. O’Connor was on the bench; a seat in the lawyers’ section at the Court was reserved for Miers, but it went unfilled. The Miers announcement overshadowed the pageantry of the Court ceremony somewhat and was the buzz among the luminaries on hand. “A stealth candidate, par excellence” was the verdict on Miers from Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe, who had been invited to attend by Roberts, a former student in his constitutional law class. But the formalities were in keeping with Court traditions. Before he was sworn in, Roberts sat waiting in a chair below the Court’s bench. As expected, the sleeves of his black robe carried no golden stripes; Roberts has apparently allowed Rehnquist’s Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired wardrobe innovation to lapse. Gonzales made a motion to the Court to have Roberts’ commission — the formal parchment document ratifying his appointment — read aloud. Ron Thongtavee, supervisor of the marshal’s aides, carried the commission to Court clerk William Suter, who read it. Deputy clerk Cynthia Rapp escorted Roberts to the center seat, where Stevens administered the oath. The new leather chair in which Roberts sat was built for him by the Court carpentry shop. The Court recessed briefly to allow the president and other invited guests to depart and to give press photographers a photo opportunity with Roberts on the front plaza of the Court. But soon the justices reconvened, and Roberts began the oral-argument session without fanfare. Through two oral arguments on fairly technical matters — one on the meaning of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the other on the impact of a Kansas fuel tax on Indian tribes — Roberts was fully engaged, displaying detailed knowledge about the cases. About 10 minutes into the first argument, Roberts asked his first question. It was followed by several others that indicated his concern about the practical implications of the labor case, which asks whether workers must be compensated for time spent waiting and walking to and from areas where they must don protective clothing before starting work. Roberts asked five questions in the first case and seven in the second, placing him in the “moderately active” category in comparison with his colleagues — about the same number that Stevens asks, fewer than Justice Antonin Scalia usually asks, but far more than Justice Clarence Thomas. In a single day, Roberts asked lawyers more questions than Thomas has asked in several terms combined. And Roberts showed he was not generous in giving lawyers extra time after the red light went on, indicating their argument time was up. Twice he cut lawyers off in midsentence, even though they were answering justices’ questions. Former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who argued in the Kansas tax case, was one of the lawyers Roberts cut off. “I thought I had two seconds more to speak,” Olson joked afterward. Olson said he was impressed that Roberts had familiarized himself with the cases on such short notice. “He knew everything about the cases. He’s off to a great start.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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