The Rehnquist watch

With Memorial Day behind us, the chief justice could retire any day now. Where have we heard that one before?

Published May 31, 2005 12:14PM (EDT)

Memorial Day is behind us, and that can mean only one thing: The baggers at our local supermarket can put away those garish "USA" T-shirts until the Fourth of July.

No, wait. It can mean something else, too: The William Rehnquist retirement watch has officially begun -- again. The Supreme Court is done hearing cases for the term, and now only the work of deciding them remains. As of this morning, the court has 29 cases still to decide from this year. By the end of the day, it will have issued decisions in at least a couple of those, bringing it ever closer to the court's summer vacation and, with it, the announcement that court-watchers have been awaiting for nearly a year.

Rehnquist, the chief justice, has thyroid cancer and is almost certain to retire this summer. It's at least possible that another justice -- Sandra Day O'Connor? -- could retire as well. The prospect of the first Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 11 years has Washington in a major wait-and-see mode.

There's plenty of speculation about potential nominees, but this waiting game has been playing itself out for years now, and there are still far more questions than answers. Among them: Has Rehnquist or any other justice already informed the White House or his or her intention to leave? Has the White House already made up its mind about a replacement or replacements? Will George W. Bush nominate a new justice to replace Rehnquist as the chief justice, or will he promote someone already on the court and name a new associate justice to replace him or her? Has Bush already shot his wad on Alberto Gonzales, Janice Rogers Brown, Miguel Estrada and others once thought to be likely Supreme Court picks, or will he turn to them once again? And whatever Bush does, will the compromise deal that averted the nuclear option last week survive the heat of a Supreme Court nomination fight?

All we know for certain is this: The well equipped Eastern Shore summer rental comes with C-SPAN this year.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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