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. …