Sandra Day O'Connor Announces Retirement ; Conservatives Hope to Use Opportunity to Shift Supreme Court Further to the Right

Article excerpt

The retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor, the nation's first woman Supreme Court justice, presents President Bush and his social conservative supporters with the best opportunity in 14 years to significantly shift the court further to the right.

But with recent efforts by White House officials to float the possible nomination of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales it remains unclear whether Bush will view the opening on the high court as an opportunity to reward social conservatives for their votes in 2004 or to reach out to Hispanic voters in 2006 and 2008 by appointing a Hispanic to replace her.

In a Rose Garden statement Friday shortly after Justice O'Connor delivered her resignation letter to Bush, the president praised her 24 years of service on the high court and her fight to overcome gender discrimination. "This great lady... rose above the obstacles of an earlier time and became one of the most admired Americans of our time," Bush said.

He said the White House would name a replacement at a later time.

"Today..., is a day to honor the contributions of a fine citizen and great patriot," he said, referring to O'Connor.

In response to widespread expectations that the confirmation process could quickly degenerate into nomination Armageddon, Bush urged restraint. "The nation... deserves a dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate, characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote."

On the thorny issue of abortion, Justice O'Connor has been a reliable vote supporting a woman's right to choose. Her departure after 24 years on the court is expected to trigger all-out warfare by a broad coalition of liberal advocacy groups seeking to fend off attempts to push the court further to the right.

At the same time a number of conservative groups are urging President Bush to follow through on his campaign promise to appoint judges and justices in the mold of conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Both support overturning the abortion precedent, Roe v. Wade.

It is less certain how Mr. Gonzales might rule in a direct challenge to abortion rights, but many conservatives suspect based on his track record as a Texas Supreme Court judge that he would vote to uphold the precedent. Conservatives also distrust Gonzales because they believe he supports affirmative action.

Unlike the much anticipated retirement of conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the replacement of O'Connor with a more conservative justice could cause a major shift in the law in a variety of areas beyond the abortion dispute.

O'Connor is sometimes referred to as the most powerful woman in America because of her role as a key swing voter on the sharply divided court. When the court divides 4-4 on a hot button issue, O'Connor frequently breaks the deadlock and the resulting law mirrors her view of how the matter should be resolved.

Her power was evident in 2003 when she provided the critical fifth vote to uphold the constitutionality of affirmative action in university admissions. …