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Bush vows to act fast, seeks 'dignified' debate

President Bush followed up Justice Sandra Day O’Connor's decision to retire by saying Friday that he will act in "a timely manner" to fill the vacancy by the time the Supreme Court resumes work in the fall.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush said Friday he will pick a successor to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in a timely manner so her vacancy can be filled by the time the Supreme Court resumes work in the fall.

Anticipating a tough confirmation battle in the Senate, Bush called for a “dignified” process of considering his nominee.

“The nation deserves and I will select a Supreme Court that Americans can be proud of,” Bush said. “The nation also deserves a dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate — characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote.”

"I will choose a nominee in a timely manner," he added, "so that the hearing and the vote can be completed before the new Supreme Court term begins."

The White House later said the president would not decide before he returns from Europe on July 8.

In brief comments at the White House, Bush said he takes "seriously" his responsibility to nominate a successor and has asked staff to recommend people who meet a "high standard of legal ability, judgment and integrity" — and people who will "faithfully interpret the Constitution and the laws of our country."

“I will be deliberate and thorough in this process,” Bush promised.

Bush will consult with Republican and Democratic senators about his selection, and will talk with them on the flight to Denmark next Tuesday and during his stay Wednesday through Friday at the summit of leading industrialized nations in Scotland, said presidential spokesman Scott McClellan.

'You turned out pretty good'
The White House got the first indication of the retirement on Thursday when the Supreme Court’s head marshal, Pamela Talkin, called White House counsel Harriet Miers to make arrangements to deliver a sealed envelope the next morning. Miers informed Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who were having lunch together, that a letter was coming. Talkin informed the White House around 9 a.m. Friday that the letter was from O’Connor, and Miers alerted Bush .

The president spoke with O’Connor before he appeared in the Rose Garden to express appreciation for her 24 years of service.

“For an old ranching girl, you turned out pretty good,” he told O’Connor, who grew up on an Arizona ranch. But it was an emotional call, McClellan said. He quoted Bush as telling her, “You’re one of the great Americans” and “I wish I were there to hug you.”

McClellan said that while White House staff has been preparing material on potential nominees, the president has not reviewed the notes but would likely do so on the trip to Europe.

“We have had a plan in place ... just in case there was a vacancy,” he added.

Source: Earlier list had no women
O’Connor’s retirement caught the White House by surprise. The administration had been preparing for Chief Justice William Rehnquist to step down, and had been mulling how to replace the conservative anchor of the court, according to a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the selection process.

Now, the White House has to re-examine its thinking because it faces a vacancy caused by the resignation of a moderate woman instead of a conservative man.

A short list of candidates distributed in the White House within the last week had not included the name of any women or minorities, the official said.

The change is likely to be even more pronounced than if the retirement had been Rehnquist, who has been predictably conservative.

Both sides and their well-bankrolled special interest allies are poised to plunge into the fray.

A confirmation battle over O’Connor’s successor, “that’s where the rubber really hits the road,” said presidential historian Allan Lichtman of American University. “She’s one of the most powerful people in America, because she’s the swing vote in so many cases.”

For years, both parties have been spoiling for a Supreme Court fight.

Battle will include ad spending
It’s been more than a decade since the last vacancy. Partisan animosities are at a fever pitch, and Bush has become one of the most divisive presidents in recent history.

Interest groups, still pumped up from the 2004 presidential race, have taken to skilled — and sometimes massive — use of the airwaves and the Internet to get their messages across, from e-mail outpourings to broadcast ads and appearances on 24-hour cable news and talk radio shows.

Republican groups have said they will spend more than $18 million promoting a successor.

The pitched battles fought by Republicans and Democrats over previous Bush judicial appointments were seen by those on both sides of the political divide as warmups, dress rehearsals for inevitable Supreme Court confirmation fights to come.

Unless Rehnquist also announces his retirement, there won’t be a second confirmation battle this time over a new chief justice.

Still, the debate could tie up the Senate for months and undercut Bush’s efforts to win passage of a Social Security overhaul and other major parts of his domestic agenda.

It is the first nomination since President Clinton named Stephen Breyer to the court in 1994.

Bush also seems likely to have at least one, and possibly two, more court vacancies to fill in the remainder of his presidency.

Rehnquist, 80, is suffering from thyroid cancer. And Justice John Paul Stevens, a liberal, is 85.

Some names
Bush must decide if he wants to go for a hard-line conservative now, or name a more politically moderate person — such as Attorney General Allberto Gonzales — who might be easier to confirm, and wait for the next vacancy to make a more conservative choice.

Others mentioned in speculation are U.S. Appeals Court Judges J. Michael Luttig and J. Harvie Wilkinson III, both of the 4th Circuit Appeals Court in Richmond, Va.. Others mentioned frequently are Judges John Roberts of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Michael McConnell of the 10th Circuit and Samuel Alito of the 3rd Circuit.

Also: former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, Judge Edith Jones of the 5th Circuit and Judge Danny Boggs of the 6th Circuit.

Passions are running so high that “there is going to be a presumption against any presidential nominee on the part of the Democrats, which is too bad,” said Charles Black, a longtime GOP consultant who is close to the Bush family. “I think he could nominate Ted Kennedy, and they’d still go into full battle mode against him.”

But Democratic consultant Joe Lockhart, former press secretary to Clinton, said there doesn’t have to be a knockdown, drag-out fight if Bush will confer with Senate leaders of both parties before submitting his choice — a practice Lockhart said was utilized by both Presidents Reagan and Clinton for choices who were confirmed.

“If President Bush uses the model created by Reagan and Clinton, there is no inevitability of a big fight. But if he chooses to go it alone, it increases the likelihood that this will get caught up in partisan back-and-forth,” Lockhart said.