The Rehnquist watch, maybe

The Supreme Court issues a slew of new opinions, but the real news will be the retirement of the chief justice -- or will it?

Published June 23, 2005 3:04PM (EDT)

There will be all sorts of news out of the Supreme Court over the next few days. The court has issued decisions in six cases already this morning. Within the next week, it will probably rule on the legality of internet file sharing and public displays of the Ten Commandments, and it will decide whether to involve itself in the Valerie Plame case or let reporters go to jail. But the biggest story from the court will be news of the retirement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Or not.

The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday that Antonin Scalia is telling people that Rehnquist's health is better than it's been made out to be, and Bill Kristol speculated last night that next week will bring news of a Supreme Court retirement -- not Rehnquist's, but Sandra Day O'Connor's. "There are several tea-leaf-like suggestions that O'Connor may be stepping down, including the fact that she has apparently arranged to spend much more time in Arizona beginning this fall," Kristol writes, adding that Rehnquist might stay if O'Connor leaves out of concern that having two vacancies at once "wouldn't be good for the court."

So anything could happen, or nothing -- we've all been on some fruitless Supreme Court retirement watches before -- but the partisans on both sides will be ready in any event. As Linda Feldmann and Warren Richey write in today's Christian Science Monitor, both sides in the judicial wars remember what happened when Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. Democrats pounced within an hour, and Bork's nomination "never recovered."

Of course, 1987 was a world of technology ago, and the instant analysis on any Bush nominee will come not on the Senate floor but in blast messages sent to reporters before the president can even finish his nomination speech. That explains the pre-emptive posturing that's taking place now.

Senate Democrats are picking up on the "Gang of 14" agreement today by releasing a letter urging George W. Bush to consult with the Senate before making any nomination to the Supreme Court, positioning themselves in advance as open-minded individuals who want to work with the president on a confirmation process that will be productive rather than punishing. Meanwhile, the conservative group Progress for America has launched what it calls a "warning shot" TV spot in which it predicts that Democrats will "attack anyone" Bush ends up nominating. "Progress for America does not know who President Bush will nominate in the event of a Supreme Court vacancy this summer," the group's president, Brian McCabe, said in a statement posted on its Web site. "But we do know what everyone else knows: that liberal attack groups are hungry to smear almost any potential candidate for the Supreme Court who doesn't meet their left-wing, extreme litmus test."

The summer has just begun. Stay tuned.

By Tim Grieve

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

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Supreme Court War Room