Friday, July 01, 2005

Justice for all

Well, we all knew it was coming, although I'd hoped William Rehnquist would be the first to retire, so Bush would just replace one conservative judge with another.

Instead, it's Sandra Day O'Connor who announced her retirement this morning, surprising judicial advocacy groups on both sides of the political divide. In addition to being the first female Supreme Court justice, O'Connor is recognized as an important swing voter, a moderate conservative whose votes weren't always predictable. The Associated Press has compiled a summary of her decisions during her tenure on the court; the choices reveal a complex intellectual who remained close to the center, a woman who not only upheld abortion rights and struck down the death penalty for minors, but who also cast the crucial vote during the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election.

O'Connor is a rarity these days: she's someone who manages to make every part of the political spectrum felt it has been heard, even if it doesn't win out entirely. While no one knows who her successor will be, one thing seems clear: the odds of bringing another moderate to the court are slim. As the BBC notes, this summer is going to erupt in a fury of political backbiting as the legislature clashes over her successor. It's going to be very, very ugly -- and it will be difficult to believe that anyone involved in the choice will act out of altruism. In this political climate, no one is interested in appointing an erudite legal philosopher who considers precedence; rather, every side wants its vocal advocate, someone who unabashedly favors their political beliefs. O'Connor's successor likely will be a conservative idealogue, perhaps a staunch anti-abortion advocate, or a "wise use" philosopher who despises environmental protection laws. One thing is for sure: this nomination battle will set the tone for others to come. Rehnquist can't last forever, and many justices are teetering on twilight's edge. All we can do is cross our fingers and hope for reason to win, even though the odds of that are unlikely.

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