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High Court Retirement Rumors Were Just That

All the buildup for the confirmation battle lacked only one ingredient: an announcement from one of the justices.

June 28, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The buzz about a retirement of a Supreme Court justice this year shares some features of the debate so far over Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction: Many people in Washington believed it was so, in part because many others in Washington believed it was so.

And since they talk back and forth to each other, a reasonable possibility became, in their minds, a near-certainty.

Bush administration lawyers, senators and their staffs, and interest group activists said they believed one or more of the aging justices would retire this year.

Considering the facts, this was not an unreasonable belief.

After all, there had been no change in the court since 1994, the longest period without a retirement since the 1820s.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 78, has said he would prefer to have a Republican president fill his seat, and he is a longtime friend of the Bush family.

In November, Rehnquist, a widower, fell at home and tore a tendon in his knee. He spent much of the winter on crutches. He has long suffered from back trouble, and his stooped and slow gait convinced some who saw him this spring that he was near retirement.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 73, loves the court's work, but her husband, John, has talked fondly about their returning to Arizona.

And Justice John Paul Stevens, another Republican appointee, is older than both of them. He turned 83 in April.

Since next year is an election year, this year was seen as the last time for a justice to retire without either sparking a struggle in the heat of the 2004 presidential election or having his or her replacement decided during the next presidential term.

There were news stories reporting, correctly, that liberal groups such as People for the American Way and the Alliance for Justice were gearing up to fight Bush's first nominee to the Supreme Court.

Conservatives were prepared to fight back. Former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray organized the Committee for Justice to raise money and run ads defending the president's judicial nominees.

Other stories reported on speculation inside the administration and around Washington on who Bush would nominate to fill a vacancy. Would White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales become the first Latino justice, or would the president seek a more committed conservative to satisfy his party's right wing?

In the end, all the buildup for the summer-long confirmation battle lacked only one ingredient: a retirement announcement from one of the justices.

They met in their final private conference Thursday morning and adjourned for their summer recess. The nine justices will gather again in early September to hear arguments in a landmark campaign finance case.

Of course, the justices who are the subject of retirement talk could quell the rumors by saying they do not plan to retire. But most of them refuse to say anything on the topic.

The speculation was driven by political calculations. With only rare exceptions, justices retire only when their health deteriorates or they decide they cannot keep up with the work. Most of them say the steady pace of resolving interesting legal questions keeps them going.

And the caseload is not particularly grueling. In the 1980s, the court often decided 150 cases a year with written opinions. Under Rehnquist, the court has cut that number in half.

The justices also find the summer recess a refreshing break -- both from their work and from their colleagues.

A notoriously speedy worker, Rehnquist sums up his view of the schedule by quoting the late Justice Louis Brandeis: "I can do a year's work in 10 months, but not 12."

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