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Retirement of Justice O'Connor Begins Fight Over Future of Country


It is a rare occasion when a U.S. Supreme Court Justice announces his or her retirement from a lifetime position on the nation’s highest court. That’s what happened late last week when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced she was leaving.

Justice O'Connor played an influential role in the court, and as the president and U.S. Senate begin the process of choosing her successor, the political stakes are high and the debate about her replacement is sure to be intense. The report is narrated by Paul Miller.

Nine of the most powerful men and women in American government: the justices of the United States Supreme Court. Nominated by the president, confirmed by a vote in the U.S. Senate, they serve for life.

Their influence is enormous. So when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement, a political battle began over who would replace her, and whether the nomination would be confirmed without a fight.

As with previous appointments to the court, the nominee will face questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee and then a vote by the entire Senate to confirm or defeat the nomination.

That vote could be delayed or even canceled by what is known as a filibuster, an attempt to make one speech after another, thereby postponing the vote. The decision by the minority party, the Democrats, to filibuster the nomination will depend on who is selected.

Hard-line conservatives want President Bush to appoint someone who reflects their views: against abortion and gay marriage and for religious freedom.

Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC., says the president may be obligated to do so. "This president campaigned on appointing a reliable conservative to the Supreme Court. If he were to nominate a moderate, it would be viewed as a terrible betrayal."

Justice O'Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, was seen as a centrist, often casting the swing vote in important cases. The other eight justices were divided between liberals and conservatives. Now President Bush could turn the court in a new direction.

Professor Turley says, "If he was looking for a legacy, he found one, because if he changes the court, he changes the country. He could have the greatest effect on American law of any president in our history."

Groups from the left and the right are hoping to influence the president, or the Senate, running TV advertisements, and launching grassroots campaigns, urging supporters to contact their Senators.

Liberals, such as Elliot Mincberg of People for the American Way, want the president to choose a moderate judge. He says, "Will the president pick a judge or will the president pick a fight? That's really the $64,000 question right now. And we're urging our members to urge that there be consultation and cooperation."

The conservative Committee for Justice argues that U.S. courts have taken the power to legislate social issues that is supposed to belong to the legislative branch.

Executive Director Sean Rushton, is watchful, he says, "Self rule, self government, small government, local government, is all being undermined by the court kind of consistently and arrogantly deciding cultural matters."

Partisan political campaigning for Supreme Court justices is a fairly new idea. Professor Turley says it started in 1987, when the Democratic Party attacked Robert Bork, a conservative nominated by then-President Ronald Reagan. "Within 48 hours, Bob Bork looked like a human e-bola. He couldn't change the image. He could be surrounded by puppies and children, but at the end of the day, liberals had portrayed him as an extremist."

Mr. Bork's nomination was defeated by the Senate, which was controlled by the Democratic Party at the time. Since then the Democrats have delayed several judicial nominations and the majority Republican Party members have threatened to get rid of the filibuster in order to force confirmation votes. Recently some Democratic Party senators made a deal with the Republicans, promising not to block judicial nominees except in extraordinary circumstances.

It's not clear if they'll honor that commitment in the case of a Supreme Court nominee. President Bush is not expected to announce his choice to fill the vacancy before mid-July.

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