The White House was caught off guard yesterday when Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement, forcing top administration officials, who had been readying for the departure of the court's conservative chief justice, to reconsider its options.
Bush administration officials already have interviewed some top candidates for the nation's highest court, but the group of contenders were front-runners to replace the ailing, 80-year-old Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, not to fill the seat of the court's first female justice, who is considered moderate.
Now the small group of top candidates, which includes Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, 49, and three appeals court judges, Samuel Alito, 55, J. Michael Luttig, 51, and John Roberts, 50, is expected to expand to contain more women.
Court authorities consider Edith Hollan Jones, 56, and Edith Brown Clement, 57, both judges on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, as possible contenders, and also think White House Counsel Harriet Miers, a longtime Bush confidante, is in the mix.
Besides possible pressure to nominate a woman to the court, Mr. Bush's political base will lobby to replace Justice O'Connor, whose swing vote supported abortion and affirmative action, with a more conservative voice.
The White House got the first indication of Justice O'Connor's retirement about noon on Thursday. Pamela Talkin, the Supreme Court's head marshal, called Mrs. Miers to tell her that she had a sealed envelope to deliver the next morning.
The marshal did not say who the envelope was from or what it contained. After the notification, Mrs. Miers told Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who were having lunch together, that a letter was coming from the Supreme Court the next day.
About 9 a.m. yesterday, Mrs. Talkin told the White House that the letter was from Justice O'Connor, and Mrs. Miers alerted the president.
A few minutes later, the president spoke with Justice O'Connor in what the White House described as a brief but emotional phone call.
"For an old ranching girl, you turned out pretty good," he told the El Paso, Texas, native, who grew up on an Arizona ranch. She laughed, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
After talking with Justice O'Connor and before going to the Rose Garden, Mr. Bush held a meeting with senior advisers to talk about the selection process.
The meeting included Mr. Cheney; Mrs. Miers; Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's chief of staff; Mr. Gonzales; Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Senior Counselor Dan Bartlett. Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. participated by telephone from Maine.
Mr. Bush yesterday pledged to seek input from Congress on his nomination and 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 so that the hearing and the vote can be completed before the new Supreme Court term begins."
Mr. McClellan said Mr. Bush spoke yesterday with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican. The president spoke this week about the Supreme Court with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and yesterday tried unsuccessfully to reach him, the spokesman said.
He added optimistically: "I just can't imagine that Democrats are going to want to engage in controversial tactics when it comes to a nominee for the Supreme Court."
Yesterday's retirement does put the White House in another bind -- and a well-documented one, at that. In 1987, President Reagan nominated Robert Bork for the high court. He was lambasted by liberal activist groups throughout the summer and his nomination was all but dead on arrival when the Senate returned from its August recess.
With Congress set to take nearly all of August off this year, the White House must decide quickly when to make the nomination. There are just 90 days until the gavel falls to open the fall Supreme Court term on Oct. 3, and it typically takes 70 to 75 days from the time a justice announces retirement until the Senate Judiciary Committee is ready to hold confirmation hearings.
The White House said yesterday that Mr. Bush will not make a nomination until at least next Friday, when he returns from a trip to Denmark and Scotland. But he will use the long flights to and from Europe to review material about possible replacements, Mr. McClellan said.
The president made clear that he will not rush a decision in hopes of moving a nomination through the Senate before the August recess.
"I will be deliberate and thorough in this process. I have directed my staff, in cooperation with the Department of Justice, to compile information and recommend for my review potential nominees who meet a high standard of legal ability, judgment and integrity and who will faithfully interpret the Constitution and laws of our country," Mr. Bush said.