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Miers withdrawal could affect court rulings

NBC's Pete Williams reports the withdrawal of Harriet Miers’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court means a continued period of instability on the high court that may affect the outcome of some high-profile cases.

Among the most astonished by Thursday’s news of the withdrawal of Harriet Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court was Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who announced back in July that she wanted to retire. At a seminar in California Thursday, O’Connor told NBC's Tom Brokaw, “This is a big surprise,” adding, “I don't know what happens next.”

The longer O'Connor stays on the court, the more likely it is that she'll cast the deciding votes on some of the biggest issues of the term.

The court hears an important abortion case, on parental notification rules, next month.

And the legal battle over late-term abortions, a ban approved by Congress but blocked in the lower courts, will likely be taken up in the spring.

Tom Goldstein is a founding partner of Goldstein & Howe, a law firm that specializes in Supreme Court cases. He says Miers' withdrawal could very well have an impact on some key cases.

“Conservatives have been hoping to replace Sandra Day O'Connor with someone who's much more willing to uphold abortion regulation,” explains Goldstein. “And so today's developments could have an enormous effect on that decision.”

And O’Connor could end up casting the deciding vote on Oregon's doctor-assisted suicide law, argued just three weeks ago.

Conservative groups are hoping the president will choose another Texan, perhaps Priscilla Owen, a federal judge since June and, before that, a member of the Texas Supreme Court. Other possible choices include federal judges Karen Williams of South Carolina and Michael Luttig of Virginia.

Supporters of the president, like the American Center for Law and Justice’s Jay Sekulow, hope the White House moves quickly.

“If the president selects a conservative, someone with a really known conservative judicial philosophy, then the groups are going to coalesce around it,” he says. “So I think the president can regain a base of support here that will get this next nomination forward.”

No matter how quickly someone else is nominated, it seems unlikely a new justice could be confirmed until the court finishes its winter break in late February. By then, its term will be half over.