WASHINGTON — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court and a key swing vote on issues such as abortion and the death penalty, said Friday that she is retiring after 24 years on the bench. A bruising Senate confirmation struggle loomed as President Bush pledged to name a successor quickly.
O’Connor, 75, said she will leave before the start of the court’s next term in October, or when the Senate confirms her successor.
Bush praised O'Connor's contributions saying that "our nation is deeply grateful." In brief comments at the White House, he did not announce a nominee for the seat but said he hoped to do so in "a timely manner."
It’s been 11 years since the last opening on the court, one of the longest uninterrupted stretches in history. O’Connor’s decision gives Bush his first opportunity to appoint a justice.
“This is to inform you of my decision to retire from my position as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, effective upon the nomination and confirmation of my successor," she wrote in a letter to Bush. "It has been a great privilege indeed to have served as a member of the court for 24 terms. I will leave it with enormous respect for the integrity of the court and its role under our constitutional structure.”
The White House has refused to comment on any possible nominees, or whether Bush would name a woman to succeed O’Connor. Her departure leaves Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the only other woman among the current justices.
Court watchers had expected a Supreme Court vacancy during Bush's second term. There was talk that O'Connor and Justice John Paul Stevens, 85, might consider stepping down. And Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80, has cancer.
Lobby campaigns begin
Conservative and liberal groups immediately began phoning, e-mailing and contacting supporters to mobilize support for the upcoming Senate confirmation battle.
People for the American Way, a liberal group, set up a war room in downtown Washington for the Supreme Court battle. It has already sent out thousands of e-mails and is setting up phone banks to build support for Senate Democrats.
The liberal political action group MoveOn said it already has a TV ad urging senators to "protect our rights" against a rightwing nominee.
For its part, the conservative group Progress for America has launched Internet ads mocking Senate Democrats.
Frist: Names floated
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he's been talking to Democratic leader Harry Reid about nominees for a potential vacancy on the Supreme Court but doesn't have any inside information on whom President Bush might nominate.
"Have Senator Reid and I talked about individual names? Yes, we have in the privacy of our regular meetings," Frist said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. He wouldn't say whom he and Reid had discussed or characterize their chances in front of the Senate.
Reid later offered three names of people he said would be good for the court: GOP Sens. Mel Martinez of Florida, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Mike Crapo of Idaho. They "are people who serve in the Senate now who are Republicans who I think would be outstanding Supreme Court members," Reid said.
Reid also said that in a conversation with the justices last week, they said that "they thought what would be a good idea is to start calling people from outside the judicial system."
"I think that's something that we should listen to. And I've conveyed this to anyone that will listen," Reid said.
Fourteen senators have served on the Supreme Court. The revolving door has turned the other way only once: David Davis resigned from the court in 1877 to represent Illinois in the Senate as an independent.
Bush has 'reached out'
Democrats sent a letter to the White House last week asking for Bush to consult with them on making a Supreme Court pick. "To this stage, there hasn't been much. But I'm confident there will be," Reid said.
Frist said the White House has already started. "I think the president and the administration have reached out to solicit names and solicit ideas," Frist said. "I don't want to speak for the administration, but I know that's being done. They are reaching out for suggestions."
Frist said that senators are still negotiating on exactly how a Supreme Court confirmation process would go, since more than half of the current senators were not there for the last confirmation.
Fifty-six senators, including nine members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, were not in the Senate when Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was confirmed in July 1994.
"So, we're spending a lot of time at the senator level and at the staff level looking at the different phases of the nomination process," said Frist, who also wasn't around for the last Supreme Court nomination.
Frist called upon Democrats to not filibuster judicial nominees. "Senators should treat every nominee with dignity and respect and give them the courtesy of an up-or-down vote. And that includes any potential Supreme Court nominee should there be a vacancy," Frist said.
Swing vote legacy
O’Connor leaves with a reputation as a "swing voter" on the bench.
Her appointment in 1981 by President Reagan, quickly confirmed by the Senate, ended 191 years of male exclusivity on the high court.
She wasted little time building a reputation as a hard-working moderate conservative who emerged as a crucial power broker on the nine-member court.
O’Connor often lines up with the court’s conservative bloc, as she did in 2000 when the court voted to stop Florida presidential ballot recounts sought by Al Gore, and effectively called the election for President Bush.
As a “swing voter,” however, O’Connor sometimes votes with more liberal colleagues.
Perhaps the best example of her influence is the court’s evolving stance on abortion. She distanced herself both from her three most conservative colleagues, who say there is no constitutional underpinning for a right to abortion, and from more liberal justices for whom the right is a given.
O’Connor initially balked at letting states outlaw most abortions, refusing in 1989 to join four other justices who were ready to reverse the landmark 1973 decision that said women have a constitutional right to abortion.
Then in 1992, she helped forge and lead a five-justice majority that reaffirmed the core holding of the 1973 ruling. Subsequent appointments secured the abortion right.
Commentators have called O’Connor the nation’s most powerful woman, but O’Connor poo-poohed the thought, once telling the Associated Press: “I don’t think it’s accurate.”