Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement Friday, setting off what could be a major political battle over the confirmation of her as yet unnamed successor. Justice O'Connor was the first woman to serve on the high court and her retirement brings about the first court vacancy in 11 years.
Justice O'Connor, who is 75, sent a simple retirement letter to President Bush that said it has been a privilege for her to serve on the high court for the past 24 years, and that she leaves with enormous respect for the court and its role under the U.S. Constitution.
At the White House, President Bush praised Justice O'Connor's contributions to the Supreme Court, and said he is prepared to carry out his constitutional duty to nominate a successor in the near future. The nominee must be confirmed by the Senate.
"Justice O'Connor's great intellect, wisdom and personal decency have won her the esteem of her colleagues and our country," said President Bush. "Under the Constitution, I am responsible for nominating a successor to Justice O'Connor. I take this responsibility seriously. I will be deliberate and thorough in this process."
It will be President Bush's first nomination to the high court. The president says he hopes the court vacancy will be filled by the time the Supreme Court begins its next session in early October.
The president says he will consult with senators from both parties on the nomination, and the Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, is promising quick action to fill the vacancy.
Senator Frist also praised Justice O'Connor in a speech on the Senate floor.
"She has served as an example to all Americans, demonstrating that through persistence and hard work, anything is possible in the face of obstacles, including being a woman in a male-dominated law profession," said Bill Frist. "She never surrendered her determination."
Given the sharp partisan divide in Washington and on the Supreme Court itself, the court vacancy is likely to set off a very partisan and potentially difficult confirmation process that could last for much of the next few months.
Opposition Democrats will press the president to nominate a moderate to the high court, noting Justice O'Connor's record as a judicial centrist in many high profile cases over the years.
Among them is Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
"I urge President Bush to consult with the United States Senate on his nominee to the nation's highest court, and to nominate someone whose record is consistent with the ideals and freedoms of the United States," said Ted Kennedy.
Activist groups on both sides of the political divide have been preparing for the possibility of a Supreme Court vacancy for some time. American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman predicts the confirmation battle will be hard fought, because the president and his Republican allies see an opportunity to give the Supreme Court a more conservative bent, while Democrats hope for a more moderate choice.
"It is so polarizing, because there are fundamentally different views between the Republicans and the Democrats about legal issues that are going to affect the lives of all Americans," said Allan Lichtman. "At stake in judicial appointments, of course, are abortion rights. But it goes far beyond that. Also at stake are issues regarding the separation of church and state."
Justice O'Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981 by Republican President Ronald Reagan. But she often pleased liberal activist groups with her views in favor of abortion rights and placing new limits on the death penalty.
Conservatives sometimes expressed disappointment with her opinions, but they applauded her decision to join the court's more conservative justices in voting to end the vote recounts in Florida during the 2000 presidential election that effectively ended the dispute in Mr. Bush's favor. She also tended to favor states rights when there were conflicts with the federal government, and she often supported enhanced police powers in the handling of criminal suspects.
As for her own legacy, Justice O'Connor once told a television interviewer that she is proud of her position as the first woman on the Supreme Court.
"For the public, generally, to see and respect the fact that, in positions of power and authority, that women are well represented, that it is not an all-male governance, as it once was," said Sandra Day O'Connor.
The O'Connor announcement was somewhat surprising in that most court observers had been predicting that Chief Justice William Rehnquist would be the one to leave, given his battle with thyroid cancer.
Chief Justice Rehnquist presided over the final court session this past week, and has given no indication that he plans to retire.