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Tough fight expected over O'Connor's successor

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor




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Supreme Court
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(CNN) -- Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's decision to retire unleashed a bipartisan wave of praise Friday on Capitol Hill that quickly gave way to jostling over her potential successor and the future of the U.S. Supreme Court.

President Bush thanked O'Connor for her service on the court, calling her "a discerning and conscientious judge."

Bush said he wanted to have her successor in place by October when the Supreme Court opens its next session. He is not expected to announce a nominee until after returning from the Group of Eight summit in Scotland on July 8.

The president learned of O'Connor's plans Friday morning and spoke to her on the telephone -- calling her a great American and telling her he wished he could hug her, according to the White House.

He then met with top advisers who are going to help him in the selection process, including Vice President Dick Cheney; Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby; Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; presidential adviser Karl Rove; counselor Dan Bartlett; and Chief of Staff Andrew Card, the White House said.

"I have directed my staff, in cooperation with the Department of Justice, to compile information and recommend for my review potential nominees who meet a high standard of legal ability, judgment and integrity, and who will faithfully interpret the Constitution and laws of our country," Bush said.

The president said the country "deserves a dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate, characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote," an apparent reference to the bruising filibuster fight that stalled some of his judicial nominees. (Full story)

He promised to consult the Senate, which must vote to confirm his nominee, while making the pick.

The White House has held secret meetings discussing possible replacements if any justice were to step down. Senior officials have interviewed some possible candidates. (Gallery: Potential nominees)

It is the first Supreme Court vacancy since President Clinton's nomination of Justice Stephen Breyer in 1994.

O'Connor, 75, has been the pivotal fifth vote that decided a number of major rulings since President Reagan appointed her in 1981.

She angered social conservatives by re-affirming abortion rights in several abortion-related cases, insisting states place "no undue burden" on those rights.

This week, she sided firmly against Ten Commandments displays in Texas and Kentucky. (Full story)

O'Connor also has angered liberals, supporting limits on affirmative action and serving as the swing vote that ended vote counts in the 2000 presidential election, giving Bush victory over Al Gore.

For months, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they expect a high-stakes battle when it comes time to fill a vacancy. Liberal and conservative groups already have launched major campaigns calling for nominees who lean toward their points of view.

While Bush has expressed opposition to abortion rights -- and Republicans have opposed them in their party platform -- a majority of Americans supports them. A poll this week found 65 percent of Americans want a new Supreme Court justice to uphold Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion, while 29 percent want the decision overturned.

Senate Democrats, including some of Bush's sharpest critics, were quick to praise O'Connor and urged the president to use her as a model for her replacement.

"I hope the president will select someone who meets the high standards that she set and that can bring the nation together, as she did," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, said.

"Today, President Bush is faced with a decision that affects each and every American and has the potential to impact every facet of constitutional law and the freedoms this country was founded upon."

In a statement, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said that Bush should "replace Justice O'Connor with a consensus candidate, not an ideologue."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, urged his colleagues to remember O'Connor's legacy and said he looks forward to working with them "to ensure a fair confirmation process."

"America needs judges who are fair, independent, unbiased and committed to equal justice under the law," Frist said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said he expected the process to be tough because the American public is "very polarized" on the issues before the Supreme Court.

But he said he did not expect a Democratic filibuster. (A filibuster stalemate over judicial nominees ended in May when a compromise was struck among seven Republicans and seven Democrats. But that deal left open the possibility of filibusters down the road.)

"You really can't when you become involved in a filibuster on an eight-person court and have 4-4 decisions -- many are now 5-4 -- you'd have a dysfunctional court," he said.

Specter said his panel would be ready to move quickly and hold confirmation hearings once Bush picks his nominee.

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