Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has indicated she will not retire this year, signaling that the nine-member high court will likely remain intact into 2004. That means President Bush will be able to sidestep, for now, a potentially divisive political battle over the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice.
In a rare television appearance on ABC's This Week program Sunday, Justice O'Connor said she "assumes" that she will remain on the job when the court opens its next term in October.
Justice O'Connor denied a report that she had told friends on election night in 2000 that she wanted George W. Bush to win the presidency because she had hoped to retire under a Republican president who would nominate her successor.
Speculation about a possible retirement has focused on three of the court's nine court justices. In addition to Justice O'Connor, court observers have mentioned Chief Justice William Renhquist and Justice John Paul Stevens as possible retirees, though neither has given any recent indication that they are leaving.
Justice O'Connor is considered perhaps the most crucial vote on the court because she is often on the winning side of the numerous 5-4 decisions issued by the high court.
Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Justice O'Connor is the first woman to serve on the high court and has provided key votes upholding the right to abortion and maintaining affirmative action programs to foster racial diversity.
Supreme Court justices rarely give interviews, and her Sunday appearance provided an opportunity for Ms. O'Connor to consider the contributions she has made to the high court.
"Well, I have tried to deal with the 'tombstone question' [legacy] in the past and I have always just said that I hope at the end of the day it can be said on my tombstone, 'Here lies a good judge,' she said.
Legal analysts and reporters who closely monitor the Supreme Court predict that a divisive political fight will ensue between President Bush and Senate Democrats over Justice O'Connor's successor, if she decides to step down.
The Senate must confirm the president's nomination and court-watcher Mike Kirkland of United Press International says that battle could be bitter. He spoke at a roundtable discussion on the Supreme Court sponsored by the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
"If they are replacing Rehnquist with another conservative, I think the debate will be somewhat subdued," he said. "If they are replacing O'Connor, this town will erupt."
Justice O'Connor's profile rose again recently. She wrote last month's opinion that upheld affirmative action programs aimed at encouraging diversity at colleges and universities.
Although the court frequently tackles divisive social issues, public opinion polls suggest most Americans have a fairly positive view of the Supreme Court. The overall positive rating usually remains near 60 percent. That figure dipped a bit though following the 2000 decision in the Bush v. Gore case that tipped the election to President Bush.
The polls also suggest that Justice O'Connor is the most admired member of the Supreme Court. A recent Fox News poll found that 11 percent of those surveyed put her on a list of Americans who they most "admire or agree with".
But the polls also confirm the notion that Americans know far less about the high court than the other two branches of government, the Presidency and Congress.
Sixty-eight percent of those in a recent survey could not name any of the nine Supreme Court justices.