New Justice Likely to Solidify Conservative Majority on Court Brennan's Retirement Seen as Critical for Direction of Social, Civil Rights Issues

Article excerpt

THE retirement of the Supreme Court's leading liberal thinker, Justice William J. Brennan Jr., is most critical for such politically charged issues as abortion, affirmative action, and free speech.

In the past few years, Justice Brennan has been a mobilizing force in key decisions protecting rights on this embattled turf. But across much of the legal landscape, the rightward movement of the Supreme Court put him consistently in dissent.

"He was a voice of conscience, and on a few crucial cases he could command a majority - but a very few," says David O'Brien, a Supreme Court expert at the University of Virginia.

The White House began conferring on Brennan's successor - President Bush's first crack at a Supreme Court nomination - on Saturday, just hours after Brennan's surprise retirement.

The new justice will almost certainly solidify a conservative majority that counts as 4.5 to five votes out of nine.

The conservatives may now be less dependent on the support of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the least consistent member of the bloc, especially concerning abortion.

The Bush administration has about 15 candidates under review for the nomination. The most obvious choice by outside consensus would be US Solicitor General Kenneth Starr.

Mr. Starr is well liked by the conservative movement, which closely watches judicial appointments and vets them for ideology. His credentials include filing the Justice Department brief that helped win the Webster decision last summer, a decision that opened the way for state legislatures to restrict abortion. He also filed a brief last year in favor of the Texas law banning flag-burning which the court ruled unconstitutional.

But Starr also has the uncontroversial style in his opinions and the professionalism that make a Robert Bork-style confrontation over his Senate confirmation unlikely. (Mr. Bork, an outspoken conservative nominated to the court in 1987, was rejected by the Senate). …