Supreme Court Vacancy Looks Less Likely This Year; Rehnquist, O'Connor, Stevens Now Expected to Remain

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Byline: Frank J. Murray, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Any prospects for a partisan fight this summer over confirming President Bush's first Supreme Court nominee appeared to dim recently after justices agreed to hear a contentious case in September, signaling that the bench will remain unchanged at least until then.

Despite the court's decision Thursday to consider campaign-finance reform, the Senate Judiciary Committee is forging ahead with contingency plans based on what a Senate Republican leadership staff member called "the 100-percent expectation a vacancy will occur."

The Senate's preparation and much of the speculation over which of the three eldest Supreme Court justices might retire this month are driven by groups such as People for the American Way, which have opposed Mr. Bush's judicial nominations.

Since before the 2000 election, groups such as PFAW have raised money by annually predicting doom for the Constitution if Mr. Bush were allowed to install judges on the Supreme Court. PFAW President Ralph Neas declared last week that at least one justice will resign, creating "the first of three or four openings" in coming years.

Such activists have sounded the alarms even though several factors indicate that the most stable nine-justice high court in history will remain unchanged for two more years.

Most analysts expecting a retirement consider Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 78, or Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 73, the most likely to depart, even though each plays a key role in the most sharply split cases and both still write books and pursue activities outside the court.

The true dark horse is Justice John Paul Stevens, who at 83 is an avid tennis player said to abhor letting a conservative Republican choose his replacement.

Sources who have contacts with Chief Justice Rehnquist said they doubt he plans to quit, and he bandies words with those brash enough to raise the question. After the chief justice visited Mr. Bush at the White House in December, both parties let it be known his mission was a hunt for allies to raise judicial salaries.

Skeptics of that account consider the visit a pretext for a nominating-strategy session.

Mr. Bush announced May 9 that Justice O'Connor would lead a team of judges to Bahrain in September to help improve Middle East court systems, but a White House spokesman couldn't confirm yesterday whether the president and Justice O'Connor had spoken.

Justice O'Connor's only public comment about her position on the court was to dampen speculation she might be elevated to chief justice. When asked, she replied, "I'm too old," the Christian Science Monitor reported.

"It's very possible that they won't retire," said Artemus Ward, author of "Deciding to Leave: The Politics of Retirement From the United States Supreme Court."

"Why retire when you're at the top of your game?" he said.

He considers the chief justice the most likely candidate - ending his 32-year tenure on the court - although Mr. Rehnquist often mentions future projects and recently extended for a fourth year the appointment of administrative assistant Sally M. …