Justice In The Balance

Sandra Day O'Connor, Supreme Court Justice AP

Sandra Day O'Connor stepped down unexpectedly from the Supreme Court, closing out a career as the first female justice and the anchor of a shaky majority for abortion rights. President George W. Bush pledged to name a successor quickly as a costly confirmation battle took shape.

O'Connor's decision to retire Friday created the first vacancy at the high court in 11 years, and marked the departure of the justice who had become the majority maker in a stream of 5-4 cases covering abortion, the death penalty and more over a quarter-century.

Bush, under pressure from some conservatives to name an outright foe of abortion, said he would appoint a successor who "will faithfully interpret the Constitution and laws of our country."

And as White House Correspondent Bill Plante reports, with the potential of a bitter battle to replace the Supreme Court's key swing vote, the president laid down his marker -- a demand that there be no filibuster by Democrats.

"The nation also deserves a dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate," he added.

Mr. Bush wants Senate confirmation before the new court term begins in October -- but his staff says he won't nominate a new justice until after he returns from Europe next Friday, Plante reports.

Democrats said it was up to Bush to avoid a lengthy confirmation battle. "Above all, Justice O'Connor has been a voice of reason and moderation on the court," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "It is vital that she be replaced by someone like her."

O'Connor, 75 and a breast cancer survivor, kept her retirement a surprise even from her son, and it was not until Friday morning that she dispatched her letter, hand-delivered to the president.

It seemed to catch Bush's team off guard. The president and his staff had long been anticipating a retirement letter from Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80 and ailing with thyroid cancer.

The Rehnquist guessing game continued. "If we haven't heard from him by now, the chances are you won't hear from him for some time," predicted Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee that will hold hearings on Bush's candidate. The last time there were two simultaneous vacancies at the court was 1971; Rehnquist was picked for one of them.

Whatever the chief justice's plans, the short list of contenders, exclusively male, may have to be expanded in view of O'Connor's retirement, according to one White House official.

Plante reports the White House has been preparing for this day for years and has a short list of well-researched names for him to consider, including:

  • Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a possible first Hispanic justice and the president's close friend. He would likely face opposition from both the right for abortion rulings in Texas and the left for his rulings on prisoners rights.

  • D.C. Circuit Judge John Roberts, a conservative, but respected on both sides of the political spectrum.

  • Appellate judge J. Michael Luttig, a conservative who has upheld restrictions on abortion.

    Among female candidates to replace O'Connor, conservatives are suggesting Janice Rogers Brown, an African-American, and Priscilla Owen, both on the grounds that it'd be hard to reject either since both were just confirmed to the appellate court, reports Plante.

    • Dan Collins

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