Supreme Court Justice O'Connor Resigns

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 2, 2005

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a self-described "simple cowgirl" who became the first woman on the Supreme Court, announced her retirement yesterday after nearly a generation as the court's pivotal voice on society's most burning issues, from abortion and race to capital punishment and terrorism.

O'Connor, 75, stunned the capital with her simple three-sentence letter hand-delivered to the White House yesterday morning, touching off what both parties expect to be a media-saturated struggle to choose her successor. The consequences could hardly be greater, given the precarious ideological balance on the court and O'Connor's role for many years as the deciding vote.

Her announcement threw off balance the political and legal establishment in Washington, which had expected Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to retire when the court's term ended Monday and then stood down after he did not. President Bush first got word Thursday that a sealed envelope from the court would arrive the next morning but did not know from which justice, and he kept even that news secret from everyone in the West Wing but Vice President Cheney and two aides.

Within minutes of the letter's arrival, all manner of activists, lawmakers and administration officials -- many heading off for the holiday weekend -- scrambled to activate long-prepared battle plans. Bush and senators from both parties rushed to the microphones to lay down markers. Interest groups launched television advertising and sent millions of e-mail messages.

The coming nomination will be the first in 11 years and the first of the Internet era, an opportunity for Bush to remake the court in a decisive fashion. Scheduled to fly Tuesday to Europe for an international summit, Bush will not name a nominee until after he returns Friday, the White House said, but advisers have already produced a list of more than half a dozen candidates for him to consider, mainly conservative federal appellate judges.

Appearing in the Rose Garden an hour after receiving her letter, Bush praised O'Connor as "a discerning and conscientious judge" and promised to pick a successor "who will faithfully interpret the Constitution." Bush, whose selections of lower-court nominees provoked a bitter months-long standoff in the Senate, pledged to consult lawmakers and called Senate Democratic leaders yesterday with a promise to meet after his European trip.

"The nation deserves, and I will select, a Supreme Court justice that Americans can be proud of," the president said. "The nation also deserves a dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate, characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote."

But liberal critics wasted no time going on the attack even without a nominee identified. The advocacy group released a television ad asking, "Will George Bush choose an extremist who will threaten our rights?"

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose early opposition to Robert H. Bork helped doom his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987, threatened to do the same to a Bush candidate. "If the president abuses his power and nominates someone who threatens to roll back the rights and freedoms of the American people," Kennedy said, "then the American people will insist that we oppose that nominee, and we intend to do so."

Conservative allies of the president responded with their own media onslaught, including a webcast mocking Democrats in a satirical news show reporting that they were opposing George Washington and Benjamin Franklin after Bush named them to the court. "Today the battle is joined," said a statement from the Committee for Justice, a group founded to support the White House, singling out 12 Senate Democrats from conservative states "who will be held accountable" if their party blocks Bush's choice.

"This is the most important resignation and nomination . . . in our lifetime and probably more than that," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson. "It's very, very significant. Justice O'Connor is the pivotal vote on so many key cases. This has got gargantuan" implications, Sekulow said.

The nominee could reshape not only the court but also the president's place in history. "The person will serve for life and long outlive" Bush's presidency, said C. Boyden Gray, who was White House counsel to Bush's father and founded the Committee for Justice. "Presidents are in some cases defined by their nominations."

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