Waiting for Rehnquist -- and O'Connor, again?

The chief justice's retirement is now so widely anticipated now that senators are talking openly about his replacement. Arlen Specter's pick: Sandra Day O'Connor

Published July 11, 2005 12:55PM (EDT)

So it turns out that Robert Novak was wrong. Chief Justice William Rehnquist didn't announce his retirement before the week was out, as Novak predicted Thursday, nor did he announce his retirement after George W. Bush returned from the G8 summit, as Novak predicted Friday. But in the grand scheme of things, the day on which such news comes isn't as important as the fact that it comes at all. So while we're all entitled to a few moments spent mocking Novak today -- OK, you may be seated now -- the real work of the day is waiting, again, for the announcement that seems inevitable if only because we've been waiting for it so long.

If indeed the chief justice is planning to retire, he may have chosen to postpone his announcement to let Sandra Day O'Connor have a victory lap first and then again to keep his retirement from getting lost in the aftermath of the bombings in London last week. But if that's the case, Rehnquist has performed on odd sort of trick on himself: He has waited so long that his big news will be old news when it actually comes. On Capitol Hill, the chief's retirement has already become an assumed part of the political landscape -- so much so that senators are talking freely about who will replace him.

On CBS News' Face the Nation Sunday, Arlen Specter offered up his pick: He said that Bush should consider replacing Rehnquist with Sandra Day O'Connor. Isn't she retiring herself? Well, yes, Specter said, but he said he thought "it would be very tempting if the president said, 'Justice O'Connor, you could help the country now.' She has received so much adulation that a confirmation proceeding would be more like a coronation and she might be willing to stay on for a year or so."

Apparently, Specter isn't the only who has had the O'Connor-as-chief idea. Several weeks ago -- which is to say, before O'Connor announced her retirement -- two senators asked her to consider staying on in the hopes of becoming chief justice. Specter, who insisted that he wasn't involved in the overture, said that he'd heard that O'Connor was "flattered" by the suggestion and "didn't say no." Specter added: "I think it would be quite a capping to her career if she served for a time, maybe a year or so. She has her reasons for wanting to retire, as we all know, but it could help the country in a tough spot and it might be very tempting."

Tempting for O'Connor, for Democrats and for Specter, who would probably prefer not to find himself at the center of a knockdown, drag-out fight over the Supreme Court just now. It's hard to see how it would be "tempting" for Bush or for his supporters on the right. Bush has waited a long time for the chance to make some Supreme Court nominations; why would he want to keep a short-timer on the bench if he could name someone who will serve for a few decades, instead? And how would his Christianist base react if he elevated to chief justice someone they consider an extremist on abortion rights -- someone they thought was going to be gone altogether?

It's not going to happen, says Gary Bauer. Whatever qualms leaders of the religious right may have about the nominations Bush might make, they know that George W. Bush is no Arlen Specter. As Gary Bauer told the New York Times Sunday, if "Sen. Specter were president, we would have quite different nominees than what we are likely to get from a self-described conservative president like the one we have."

By Tim Grieve

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

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