WASHINGTON - John Roberts was sworn in as the 17th chief justice of the United States on Thursday, taking his oath at a White House ceremony attended by President Bush and other justices of the Supreme Court.
Bush said it was "a very meaningful event in the life of our nation" - almost 19 years to the day since the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist took his oath in the same room at the White House, the East Room.
The 50-year-old Roberts was sworn in a little more than three hours after he was confirmed by the Senate on a vote of 78-22. The oath was delivered by Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's senior member and acting chief justice since Rehnquist's death early this month.
"The Senate has confirmed a man with an astute mind and kind heart," Bush said. "All Americans can be confident that the 17th chief justice of the United States will be prudent in exercising judicial power, firm in defending judicial independence and above all a faithful guardian of the Constitution."
Roberts spoke briefly, saying that the bipartisan vote for his nomination was "confirmation of what is for me a bedrock principle, that judging is different from politics."
He said he would try to "pass on to my children's generation a charter of self-government as strong and as vibrant as the one that Chief Justice Rehnquist passed on to us."
"What Daniel Webster termed the miracle of our Constitution is not something that happens in every generation, but every generation in its turn must accept the responsibility of supporting and defending the Constitution and bearing true faith and allegiance to it," Roberts said.
The audience included Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and White House counsel Harriet Miers, both of whom have been mentioned as candidates for the Supreme Court seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Bush is expected to announce that nomination within days.
Roberts also took a separate oath during a private White House ceremony attended by the other justices and the chief justice's family.
A formal Supreme court ceremony was scheduled for Monday morning, before the opening of the term.
Roberts is the first new Supreme Court justice since 1994. Before becoming a federal judge, he was one of the nation's best appellate lawyers, arguing 39 cases - many in front of the same eight justices he will now lead as chief justice.
He won 25 of those cases.
Bush joined Roberts, former Sen. Fred Thompson and White House staff in the Roosevelt Room to watch the vote.
Under Roberts, justices will tackle issues like assisted suicide, campaign finance law and abortion this year, with questions about religion, same-sex marriage, the government's war on terrorism and human cloning looming in the future.
"With the confirmation of John Roberts, the Supreme Court will embark upon a new era in its history, the Roberts era," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "And for many years to come, long after many of us have left public service, the Roberts court will be deliberating on some of the most difficult and fundamental questions of U.S. law."
Twenty-two Democrats opposed Roberts, saying he could turn out to be as conservative as justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court anchors on the right.
"At the end of the day, I have too many unanswered questions about the nominee to justify confirming him to this lifetime seat," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Anti-abortion and abortion rights activists both have their hopes pinned on Roberts, a former government lawyer in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. While Roberts is solidly conservative and his wife, Jane, volunteers for Feminists for Life, both sides were eager to see how he will vote on abortion cases.
Roberts told senators during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings that past Supreme Court rulings carry weight, including the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973. He also said he agreed with the 1965 Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut that established the right of privacy in the sale and use of contraceptives.
But he tempered that by saying Supreme Court justices can overturn rulings.
During four days of sometimes testy questioning by Democrats, Roberts refused to hint how he would rule on cases.
"If the Constitution says that the little guy should win, then the little guy's going to win in the court before me," Roberts told senators. "But if the Constitution says that the big guy should win, well then the big guy's going to win because my obligation is to the Constitution."
Over and over, he has assured lawmakers his rulings would be guided by his understanding of the facts of cases, the law and the Constitution, not by his personal views. "My faith and my religious beliefs do not play a role," said Roberts, who is Catholic.
Roberts' confirmation brings the number of Catholics on the court to a historic high of four.
Many Democrats, even as they complained about his Reagan-era opinions and the White House's refusal to release his paperwork from the George H.W. Bush administration, acknowledged his brilliance and judicial demeanor.
"I've taken him at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda and he will be his own man as chief justice ," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary.
Roberts has the potential of leading the Supreme Court for decades. Not since John Marshall, confirmed in 1801 at 45, has there been a younger chief justice.