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NEW CHIEF JUSTICE

On first day, Roberts sets no-nonsense tone

Questions, eye on time clock recall mentor

WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice John Roberts set a no-nonsense tone on his first day on the bench yesterday, taking a page from his mentor William H. Rehnquist. There were blunt questions and sharp attention to the time clock.

The nation's 17th chief justice was given a ceremonial oath then took his place in the seat that Rehnquist held for nearly two decades. It was a smooth transition.

''We know him well and he has already earned our respect and admiration," Justice John Paul Stevens said before the court opened its new term.

Roberts, who made a career as a Supreme Court lawyer, appeared at home on the other side of the bench. At one point he sounded exasperated with a lawyer, snapping, ''That's my question." He told another veteran attorney, with a skeptical tone, that the lawyer was suggesting that the court invent a new concept.

And Roberts cut off former Solicitor General Theodore Olson in mid-sentence, when his time expired in a gasoline-tax case. Rehnquist, who died last month, was well-known for his strict timekeeping.

Roberts, 50, was deferential to his colleagues, who are all older. Before asking his first question yesterday, he let six other justices pose queries first, deferring when someone else spoke at the same time.

Before the day's work began, there was a breakfast and family photo opportunity outside the court. Some of the attention was taken away by President Bush's announcement of new justice nominee Harriet Miers at the White House.

Roberts now leads a court that has split 5-4 on major issues including affirmative action, capital punishment, and restrictions on abortion. Roberts had an easy confirmation, in part because he is not expected to dramatically change the court. The nomination of Miers to replace moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor could be more contentious.

O'Connor is serving until her successor is confirmed and was on the bench yesterday.

The first two cases of the term were technical, involving gasoline taxes and worker pay, but Roberts was a lively questioner. Cases to be argued tomorrow include a Bush administration appeal over Oregon's physician assisted-suicide law and the question of how parents of disabled children can contest education services.

Other controversial issues this term involve the death penalty, abortion and a protest of the Pentagon's ''don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays.

Roberts replaces Rehnquist, who had hired him as a law clerk in 1980. Flags in front of the court were at half-staff in Rehnquist's honor, and Stevens read a short tribute for a man he said ''led us by examples of excellence rather than by fiat."

Roberts's first case as chief justice was a business case that asked if companies must pay for workers' time spent changing into protective gear and uniforms.

Roberts has some background in business -- his father was a manager at a Bethlehem Steel mill and the chief justice worked summers there to help pay for college.

In the second case, involving the power of states to tax fuel sold on Indian reservations, he questioned if ''some bright young lawyer" encouraged Kansas lawmakers to change the fuel tax statute just to make it more favorable for the state.

In the first day of its new term yesterday, the Supreme Court:

Declined to block a lawsuit against gun manufacturers accused of negligence for firearms violence in the nation's capital.

Refused to consider whether students at Boca Raton Community High School in Florida had a free-speech right to paint religious messages on a wall mural.

Refused to consider a challenge to mandatory DNA profiling of Georgia felons.

Decided not to consider a challenge to an ordinance in Catlettsburg, Ky., prohibiting people from putting handbills on parked cars.

Denied a request to consider whether an illegal seizure took place when a Maine driver charged with drunken driving rolled down the window of his parked car after a police officer tapped on it.

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