WASHINGTON - President Bush selected Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice of the United States yesterday, elevating a well-regarded nominee who already appeared to be on a smooth path to the Supreme Court.

The move, two days after the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, opened a new chapter in Bush's drive to reshape the judiciary with conservatives whose decisions could have sweeping consequences on such issues as abortion rights and the limits of government power.

In an Oval Office announcement, with Roberts at his side, Bush said he wanted the Senate to confirm the 50-year-old U.S. appeals court judge in time for him to lead the Supreme Court when its new term begins next month.

The decision meant that Bush had, in effect, promoted Roberts to the most important seat on the bench barely 24 hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee was to begin hearings on his nomination to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

The hearings have been delayed until at least Thursday.

Roberts would now replace Rehnquist, who died Saturday of thyroid cancer and will lie in repose at the court today and tomorrow. Bush must name another replacement for O'Connor, who reaffirmed in a conversation with the president yesterday that she would remain on the court until her successor's confirmation, the White House said.

The Senate postponed Roberts' hearings to "give time for appropriate respect after the death of the chief justice," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Relatively safe selection


The selection of Roberts to succeed Rehnquist, who was credited with steering a distinctly conservative course on the court, was a relatively safe one for Bush as he struggles to recover from the political fallout of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Roberts is widely respected for his legal mind and well-liked for his low-key, personable manner. Democrats and liberal groups bracing for an intense battle with Bush over the future of the court have been hard-pressed to portray Roberts as a reactionary who poses a threat to important constitutional protections.

Roberts "has earned the nation's confidence," Bush said in nationally televised remarks, less than an hour after formally offering Roberts the position in a White House meeting.

Rehnquist's death "leaves the center chair empty [with] just four weeks left before the Supreme Court reconvenes," Bush said. "It is in the interest of the court and the country to have a chief justice on the bench on the first full day of the fall term."

Bush's decision launched a new round of speculation over whom he would pick to replace O'Connor, the court's first female justice and an important swing vote on decisions involving key constitutional questions about abortion and civil rights, among others.

'In a timely manner'
Bush said during his morning remarks that he would name someone to follow O'Connor "in a timely manner." Later, he called O'Connor from Air Force One, en route to his second tour of Gulf Coast areas ravaged by Katrina, to inform her of his decision.

Democrats and liberal activists who oppose Roberts said Bush's choice had raised the stakes in the confirmation process, and some demanded the release of more documents from Roberts' past in order to further scrutinize his record.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said "the Senate's advice and consent responsibility takes on an added dimension."

Roberts' nomination - and Bush's eventual choice to succeed O'Connor - "are lifetime appointments that we can expect to extend into the lives of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren," Leahy said in a statement. "The Supreme Court belongs to every American, and these decisions will affect all of us, and the generations who follow us."