Supreme Court Justice O'Connor Resigns

By William Branigin, Fred Barbash and Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 1, 2005; 7:11 PM

Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and a decisive swing vote for a quarter-century on major legal issues, announced her resignation today effective upon the confirmation of her successor.

In a brief letter to President Bush, O'Connor, 75, gave no reason for her decision to leave the court after 24 years as an associate justice, a tenure in which she played a crucial role in decisions on such major issues as abortion and the death penalty. But a Supreme Court spokeswoman later said O'Connor was retiring in part because she "needs to spend time now with her husband," who is reportedly in poor health.

Bush, appearing before reporters at the White House Rose Garden, hailed O'Connor as "a discerning and conscientious judge and a public servant of complete integrity." He said he has directed his staff, in cooperation with the Justice Department, to compile a list of potential nominees "who meet a high standard of legal ability, judgment and integrity and who will faithfully interpret the Constitution and laws of our country." Bush said he and his advisers would also consult with members of the Senate, which must confirm his nomination.

"The nation deserves, and I will select, a Supreme Court justice that Americans can be proud of," Bush said. He said he would be "deliberate and thorough" in choosing a nominee and would act in a "timely manner so that the hearing and the vote can be completed before the new Supreme Court term begins." The court is scheduled to convene in early October for its next term.

Bush also called for a "dignified process" in the Senate "characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote."

The resignation gives Bush his first opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court justice, a nomination that could trigger a political battle in the Senate. Democratic senators have warned that if Bush accedes to his staunchly conservative base and names someone they consider out of the mainstream, the nomination could run into stiff resistance.

"This is to inform you of my decision to retire from my position as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, effective upon the nomination and confirmation of my successor," O'Connor wrote to Bush. "It has been a great privilege indeed to have served as a member of the court for 24 terms. I will leave it with enormous respect for the integrity of the court and its role under our constitutional structure."

Just after receiving the letter, Bush spoke to O'Connor by telephone from the Oval Office in what White House spokesman Scott McClellan described as "an emotional call." McClellan said Bush told O'Connor, who was at the Supreme Court, "You are one of the great Americans. . . . I wish I was there to hug you."

Bush expressed his and first lady Laura Bush's admiration for O'Connor and told her, "For an old ranching girl, you turned out pretty good," McClellan said in a news briefing.

Shortly after that conversation, Bush held his first meeting with advisers about the process of nominating O'Connor's successor, McClellan said. Among those attending the Oval Office meeting were Vice President Cheney, White House Counsel Harriet Miers, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

McClellan said Bush would not make a decision on a nominee before he returns from a Group of Eight summit meeting in Scotland next week. So far, "he has not reviewed any material relating to potential nominees in any serious way," the spokesman said.

"The president is going to reach out to Republicans and Democrats alike" before making his pick, McClellan said. He said Bush expects to talk to the Senate majority and minority leaders, as well as ranking members of the Judiciary Committee.

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