Bush can reshape high court with Rehnquist’s death
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The death of Chief Justice William
Rehnquist has created a rare double opening on the U.S. Supreme
Court, giving President George W. Bush the chance to reshape
the court and move it to the right.
The choice by Bush, who has already selected conservative
appeals court Judge John Roberts to replace the more moderate
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is retiring, could have
far-reaching impact on constitutional issues for years.
The court has been closely divided between liberal and
conservative factions on hot-button issues such as abortion,
the death penalty and church-state separation, and the impact
of the new justices could be felt immediately.
Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
said the second vacancy “could radically shift the delicate
balance” of the court and added, “Nothing less than our
individual rights, liberties and freedoms are at stake.”
In its new term that opens on October 3, the court already
has on its docket a number of high profile cases, including one
on Oregon’s assisted suicide law and one about a parental
notification law for minors seeking an abortion.
The last time there were two openings on the nine-member
high court, whose members have lifetime tenure and have the
final word in deciding constitutional questions, was in 1971.
The nominations must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Ralph Neas of the liberal lobbying group People for the
American Way said, “The nation will be shaped for decades by
decisions that are made by President Bush and the Senate about
the future of the Supreme Court.”
“While the long-term consequences of two new justices will
be monumental, filling the vacancies on the Supreme Court is
not an emergency requiring hasty action,” he added.
The selection of a replacement for Rehnquist, who died on
Saturday after a battle with thyroid cancer, comes at a time
when Bush has been preoccupied with the recovery effort for
Hurricane Katrina and overcoming criticism that the federal
government initially moved too slowly.
Bush could decide to tap Attorney General Alberto Gonzales,
a close aide from the days when Bush was governor of Texas in
the late 1990s. If he chose Gonzales, Bush would make history
by naming the first Hispanic-American to the court.
But some of Bush’s conservative supporters have opposed
Gonzales because of positions he has taken on abortion and on
affirmative action programs to help minorities overcome past
Bush also could appoint one of the federal appeals court
judges who had been under consideration for the vacancy created
by O’Connor’s retirement, including some serving on the appeals
court in New Orleans, the city devastated by the hurricane.
Others could include judges Michael McConnell, J. Michael
Luttig and J. Harvie Wilkinson. Bush interviewed Wilkinson
before he nominated Roberts to replace O’Connor.
C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel in the first Bush
administration and the chairman of the conservative group the
Committee for Justice, described the type of nominee the
president needs to pick to replace Rehnquist.
“The nominee will need to be a principled
constitutionalist, tireless worker, and of immense personal
integrity. We are confidant the White House will pick an
outstanding jurist,” he said.
Washington lawyer Tom Goldstein, who follows the Supreme
Court and who has his own Web blog on the court, said though
some senators had raised the prospect of O’Connor remaining on
the court, that was exceedingly unlikely.
“Because the president will want to name a successor for
the chief soon, rather than waiting until next summer when the
court’s term ends, it makes little sense for Justice O’Connor
to remain,” he said.
With O’Connor and Rehnquist, the court had been together
for 11 years, the longest period of stability since 1823.
Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas
generally made up the court’s conservative wing. O’Connor and
Justice Anthony Kennedy, two more moderate conservatives, often
controlled the outcome.
The court’s more liberal members are Justices John Paul
Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer,
the last justice to join the court in 1994.