GOP victory could hasten Supreme Court retirements

The Olympian


WASHINGTON -- The GOP takeover of the Senate invigorates President Bush's push for a more conservative judiciary and makes it more likely that Chief Justice William Rehnquist will retire after the Supreme Court's annual term ends next summer.

Hours after their party won a two-seat advantage in the Senate in Tuesday's elections, Republicans vowed to move quickly on several of Bush's nominees to federal trial and appeals courts who have been kept in limbo by Senate Democratic leaders. Among them: Washington, D.C., lawyer Miguel Estrada, whom Bush appointed to an appeals court here that often has been a steppingstone to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Reflecting how a few shifting seats in the Senate can dramatically alter the nation's political agenda and its judicial system, some analysts say the elections could have given Rehnquist, 78, the political environment he has been waiting for to announce his retirement after 16 years as chief.

"Of all the external (factors) that could affect" Rehnquist's retirement plans, "what happened (election) night is probably the most salient," says Catholic University of America's law dean Douglas Kmiec, who was an assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration. Kmiec says Rehnquist likely will view the new Senate as more favorable to a successor of his own conservative ideology.

"I suspect that the chief justice will step down by next summer, and I also would expect he would quietly let the Bush administration know so they can plan ahead," says Sheldon Goldman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who tracks judicial nominations.

It would be the first high court appointment for Bush, whose nominees for lower courts typically have been conservative jurists who narrowly interpret the Constitution and federal statutes. Bush's court choices generally have believed that society's problems should be solved by elected lawmakers, not judges.

Goldman believes that Bush would disregard ongoing Democratic appeals for moderate nominees and seek a hard-line conservative for the Supreme Court.

Predicting a Supreme Court retirement is risky. But legal analysts say Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee and 30-year veteran of the court, has closely monitored the politics of the day and is most likely to step down. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 72, has sent signals that she might be thinking of retirement. But both she and the court's eldest justice, John Paul Stevens, 82, have not indicated recently that they want to leave the bench.


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