Justice O'Connor retires; nomination battle looms

Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement may have a bigger impact than Rehnquist's.
WASHINGTON -- The long-anticipated battle for the Supreme Court is finally here, but it's not the one many people expected.
It might be bloodier.
Washington prepared for the retirement of conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist; instead, the more moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement Friday -- giving President Bush the opportunity to pull the court to the right on such issues as abortion, gay rights, affirmative action and religion in public life.
Rather than swapping one conservative for another, as he would have with Justice Rehnquist, Bush gets to replace the justice who often provided the swing vote in 5-4 rulings.
Preparing for nomination
"Her replacement will have a monumental impact on the lives and freedoms of Americans for decades to come," said Ralph Neas, president of the liberal group People for the American Way.
Neas' organization is one of many prepared to campaign against any Bush nominee that they consider out of the mainstream. Those efforts will be opposed by conservative groups still smarting from the rough treatment given past GOP nominees Robert Bork, rejected by the Senate in 1987, and Clarence Thomas, who was barely confirmed after sexual harassment allegations surfaced in 1991.
"We know they will attack almost any nonliberal nominee in hysterical terms," said C. Boyden Gray, a former White House counsel whose organization, the Committee for Justice, will promote the president's pick.
Another conservative group, Progress for America, has already begun running television ads on behalf of Bush's nominee, whoever that person will be.
Bush said he will fill the first vacancy in 11 years with "a Supreme Court justice that Americans can be proud of."
Don't expect a nomination next week, aides said, as Bush travels to Scotland for the annual G-8 summit.
Possible replacements
Justice O'Connor's announcement forced a reassessment at the White House, where officials had been more focused on a possible Rehnquist retirement because of his thyroid cancer.
Her retirement puts pressure on Bush to consider nominating a woman, or at least a more moderate nominee in the O'Connor mold, analysts said. It also opens the door for a possible historic pick, such as the court's first Hispanic member, possibly Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
In recent days, conservatives have discussed a Gonzales-for-O'Connor trade. They have also criticized the possibility, calling the former White House counsel insufficiently opposed to abortion rights and affirmative action.
On the other side, Gonzales, a former White House counsel, would face liberal opposition over his role in setting policy for treatment of war prisoners.
Asked about the Supreme Court this week, Gonzales said his sole focus right now is "to defend America against domestic attacks and to make our community safer."
As for potential female nominees, administration officials have reviewed the record of New Orleans-based appeals Judge Edith Brown Clement. Another possibility is Edith Jones, who like Clement sits on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Both are considered pro-business conservatives and would likely be opposed by liberal organizations.
Conservatives, meanwhile, are expected to continue pushing judges who had been promoted for Justice Rehnquist's slot. That list includes appeals judges Michael Luttig of Virginia, Samuel Alito of New Jersey and John Roberts of Washington, D.C. They too would likely draw Democratic opposition, especially in place of the moderate O'Connor.
The key issue
As activist groups gear up for what will be a multimillion-dollar battle, abortion remains probably the biggest fault line. Conservatives have long sought a reversal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion a constitutional right.
Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, promised a "real fight" if Bush nominates an anti-Roe judge: "The 60 percent of Americans who want Roe v. Wade left alone will not be silent this time."
Abortion rights opponent Ed Meese, attorney general for President Reagan, urged Bush to seek a judge who interprets laws, "rather than making up the law to reach some policy objective or personal preference."
Liberals fear a conservative court would render decisions that favor businesses over consumers, environmentalists and unions; that restrict affirmative actions and gay rights; that give police more power over civilians.

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