WASHINGTON — John Roberts had thought he'd be arriving at the Supreme Court this month as a new associate justice, ready to don a black robe and make history alongside his mentor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Instead, on Tuesday he helped carry Rehnquist's casket up the marble steps of the court.
Roberts, teary-eyed justices and a somber President Bush led a long line of Americans paying their last respects to the chief justice whose conservatism helped turn the high court toward the right over the past three decades.
The stone-faced Roberts was one of eight pallbearers who struggled at times to get Rehnquist's flag-draped casket into the court's Great Hall and onto the Lincoln Catafalque, the structure used for President Lincoln's coffin.
Rehnquist died Saturday at 80 after a battle with thyroid cancer, three days before the Senate Judiciary Committee was to take up Roberts' nomination to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Roberts would have become the first clerk to take the bench with his former boss.
Later Tuesday, Bush, his head bowed, and first lady Laura Bush spent about a minute standing near the casket and a short time looking at the portrait of Rehnquist on a stand nearby. Justice Antonin Scalia escorted the couple.
Funeral services will be today at 2 p.m. EDT at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, open to friends and family. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney plan to attend, and Bush is to speak, along with O'Connor and Rehnquist family members.
Bush initially nominated Roberts, a federal appellate judge, to replace O'Connor, who announced in July that she would step down. The president said Monday that he would name Roberts to be the nation's 17th chief justice instead and that the list of possible nominees for O'Connor's seat was now "wide open."
Flags, including the one above the court, were at half-staff in honor of Rehnquist, a President Richard Nixon appointee who served on the court for 33 years and was elevated to chief justice in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan.
In an acknowledgment of the period of mourning, Roberts' confirmation hearings were delayed until next Monday.
Bush and Senate Republicans are pushing to confirm Roberts before the new court session that begins Oct. 3. Democrats cautioned against a rush to judgment now that Roberts is a candidate for chief justice and at age 50, could shape the court for decades.
"I would hope all senators, Republicans and Democrats, would ask very substantive questions because this is, after all, a lifetime position," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
In a simple morning ceremony, six justices, along with former clerks and court staff lined the steps outside the court, awaiting the arrival of the hearse bearing Rehnquist's casket. Seven men and one woman — most of them former Rehnquist clerks — carried the casket past the line that included a crying O'Connor.
"Being among those who carried him into the court for the last time was an indescribable honor," said David Leitch, who stood arm-to-arm with Roberts on the left side of the casket. Leitch is now general counsel for Ford Motor Co.
Fellow justices and family wiped away tears. Later, other former clerks took shifts standing by the casket through the day.
"He was like a second father to his clerks," said Robert Giuffra Jr., a New York attorney and former clerk.
In the morning ceremony, the Rev. George Evans Jr., the Rehnquist family pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Virginia, read from Psalms and led the Lord's Prayer. There were audible sobs from the family.
Rehnquist's personal employees were the first to make a circle around the coffin. A stream of other court workers followed. Absent were Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and David Souter.
A long line formed outside the court and people began walking inside past the coffin. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., were among those who paused before the casket.
Among the first was Sarah Chusid, 24, an intern at Mobilizing America's Youth, a private organization that seeks to increase the involvement of young people across the political spectrum.
Although she considers herself a liberal, Chusid said she respected the influential role that Rehnquist played on the court for more than three decades. "This is a pivotal time in the court's history; I had to come down and bear witness to this event," she said.
A line of hundreds of people, a mix of tourists and office workers, stretched across the Supreme Court plaza and several hundred yards down a sidewalk Tuesday evening. People laid long-stemmed red roses and other flowers on the steps leading to the plaza.
Rehnquist was involved in two extraordinary interventions in the executive branch — the impeachment trial of President Clinton and the settlement of the 2000 election in Bush's favor. He oversaw a court that dealt with the separation of church and state, the rights of states, affirmative action, abortion and gay rights.
Rehnquist was Lutheran, but his funeral will be held at a Roman Catholic church. Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, said Rehnquist's family had requested use of the church, primarily because of space. Gibbs said plans called for "just a very simple Lutheran service" led by Evans.
St. Matthew's was the site of President Kennedy's funeral in 1963. The funeral of former Justice William Brennan, a Catholic, also was held there.
Burial at Arlington National Cemetery will be private. Rehnquist served as a soldier in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.
Contributing: Pete Yost, Darlene Superville.