Both major U.S. political parties are mobilizing for the possibility that there could be a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court in the near future.
The nine-member Supreme Court has remained intact for more than 10 years. But Chief Justice William Rehnquist is battling thyroid cancer and has not been able to attend oral arguments for the past several months. His illness has prompted legal and political experts to predict that a court vacancy will arise sooner rather than later.
It would be up to President Bush to nominate a new justice who would have to be confirmed by the Senate. Recent history suggests any Supreme Court vacancy would likely lead to a major political showdown between Republicans and Democrats.
Democrats blocked several nominees for federal judgeships during President Bush's first term because they felt the candidates were too conservative. Republicans took a similar path during the Clinton administration when they objected to judicial nominees they thought were too liberal.
"The handful of men and women who were rejected were not rejected casually," said New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "They were rejected because after full and fair consideration of their records, they were found to be extreme. They are only among 10 of 214 who have been rejected."
President Bush has re-nominated some of the judicial candidates, prompting a political showdown in the Senate that has the Republican majority threatening to change the rules unless the Democrats back down from their pledge to continue to block nominees they view as extreme.
"I believe I have an obligation to put forth good, honorable people to serve on the bench and have done so, and I expect them to get an up or down vote on the floor of the Senate," said Mr. Bush.
But many political and legal experts predict that a battle over a Supreme Court nomination would be much more intense than the current impasse over federal judges.
During a recent speech in Washington, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recalled that his Senate confirmation vote to the high court in 1986 was 98 to nothing.
"I was known at that time in my political and social views to be fairly conservative. But still in all, I was known to be a good lawyer, an honest man, somebody who could read a text [legal document] and give it its fair meaning, had judicial impartiality and so forth. And so I was unanimously confirmed," he said. "Today, barely 20 years later, it is difficult to get someone confirmed to the court of appeals."
Activists on both sides of the political divide are already mobilizing in the event of a high court vacancy. Conservative legal commentator Mark Levin says too many judges pursue a liberal social agenda when they are appointed. He recently appeared on VOA's "Talk to America" program.
"You want a judge who is going to adjudicate the issues before the court," said Mr. Levin. "The parties want a fair shot at having an objective person look at their case and make a ruling based on the law. If they want to be 'philosopher-kings' or they want to set social policy, then you run for office. That is how it works in a democracy."
Liberals are just as intent on trying to block any nominee put forward by the president whom they fear might be too conservative.
Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal legal activist group that has opposed several of the president's nominees for federal judgeships, says the high court already leans conservative on most issues and that another conservative on the bench would tilt the Supreme Court too far to the right.
"So much of what we Americans take for granted in terms of a regulatory structure that basically protects us and our environment [is under threat]. This administration will seek to put justices on the bench that will basically overturn so much of what we have taken for granted," she said.
Political and legal experts say the looming battle over a Supreme Court nomination reflects the sharp political divide evident in the last two presidential elections.
"The stakes are too high. There are too many constituent groups with too much interest in where the court is headed on all different sides of the political spectrum," added Stephen Wermiel, a law professor at American University's Washington College of Law and an expert on the Supreme Court. "And so I do not see any way to avoid having there be a real battle."
If Chief Justice Rehnquist decides to step down, the president would have to decide whether to elevate one of the other Supreme Court justices to the position of Chief Justice or appoint a new chief from outside the court. If the president decides to promote a sitting justice to the position of chief, he would also have to nominate a second person to fill the vacancy left by the justice who would be promoted. Both nominees would require Senate confirmation.