Friday, July 1, 2005

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement from the high court today, kicking off what promises to be an acrimonious summer confirmation fight over her successor.

The retirement took many in Washington by surprise, since speculation had centered on Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist—who suffers from thyroid cancer—to retire. Both sides had lined up to fight a massive and expensive battle over his replacement.

The fight over Justice O’Connor’s replacement likely will be even more contentious because, unlike the reliably conservative chief justice, Justice O’Connor has been the swing vote in many 5-4 court decisions on the most significant court cases. Replacing her with a reliable conservative—which President Bush and the Republican-led Senate are expected to do—could shift the court to a more conservative route.

Justice O’Connor joined liberals on key decisions — upholding abortion rights and preserving the constitutionality of affirmative action. She also has been the key swing vote on the death penalty, siding with conservatives in preserving it, but siding with liberals in outlawing executions of minors.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers scrambled to pay tribute to Justice O’Connor.

“For nearly 23 years, Justice O’Connor lent America her brilliant mind and fair impartial judgement,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said in the well of the chamber moments after the announcement was made.

Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, also applauded Justice O’Connor.

“When Ronald Reagan was faced with his first Supreme Court vacancy, he chose Sandra Day O’Connor, a consensus conservative nominee who became one of the most respected members of the court,” said Mr. Neas, who also warned of the looming fight to replace her.

“In the coming weeks the president and Senate will decide whether we have a Supreme Court that will preserve the social justice achievements of the 20th century, or whether we will retreat to a 19th century interpretation of the Constitution, with individual rights given far less protection against state power and corporate irresponsibility,” he said. “The American people must be part of this great debate over our future.”

Ralph Z. Hallow contributed to this article.

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