Justice O'Connor's retirement was kept a surprise, even from her son.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- When Sandra Day O'Connor graduated from Stanford Law School a half-century ago, women weren't always welcome in top legal jobs. The self-described "cowgirl from Arizona" eventually lassoed one, though -- first female justice on the Supreme Court.
On Friday, Justice O'Connor retired, 24 years after Ronald Reagan secured her place in history. Along the way, she became the anchor of a shaky majority for abortion rights, an issue of such abiding controversy that it virtually guarantees a fierce confirmation fight for President Bush's pick to replace her.
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." He said he would make his selection in time to have a full court in place before the new term opens in October.
"The nation also deserves a dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate," he added.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee that will hold hearings on Bush's candidate, said he doubted there would be a filibuster.
'Voice of reason'
Democrats said that was up to Bush. "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."
Justice 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.
O'Connor's decision capped a pioneer's career. President Reagan broke nearly 200 years of tradition in 1981 when he named her -- a top-ranked graduate of Stanford law school -- as the first woman to wear the robes of a justice.
"As the first woman to be appointed to this court, Sandra Day O'Connor was thrust into the spotlight as no new justice has ever been," Justice Antonin Scalia said in a written statement issued by the court.
Aware by her own account of the historical burden, she evolved into a moderate conservative, but more importantly, the consistent center of a fractured court.
In her first term, she cast the deciding vote and wrote a 5-4 ruling that said a Mississippi all-women college must allow a male student to study nursing.
It was the first of many such cases.
She voted with the majority on three significant 5-4 cases in recent years: the disputed 2000 presidential election that went to Bush, a 2003 decision that upheld an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan law school and a ruling last year that said the war on terrorism did not give the government a blank check to hold terror suspects in legal limbo.
Justice O'Connor balked at letting states outlaw most abortions, refusing in 1989 to join four other justices who were ready to reverse the landmark 1973 decision that said women have a constitutional right to abortion.
In a one-sentence written statement Friday, Justice O'Connor cited her age and said she "needs to spend time" with her family.
Her official resignation letter was brief.
"It has been a great privilege indeed to have served as a member of the court for 24 terms," the 75-year-old justice wrote to Bush.
"For an old ranching girl, you turned out pretty good," Bush told her in a private call not long after receiving her letter, an aide said.
Then, in the Rose Garden outside the Oval Office, he praised her as "a discerning and conscientious judge and a public servant of complete integrity."