Washington Reacts to O'Connor Resignation

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President Bush offered his thoughts Friday about the resignation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Madeleine Brand speaks with Don Gonyea about the president's remarks and other reaction to the resignation from around the Capitol.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West and Slate magazine online, this is DAY TO DAY. Alex Chadwick is on assignment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: A short time ago I had a warm conversation with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has decided to retire from the Supreme Court of the United States.

BRAND: That's President Bush announcing the retirement of the first female justice on the US Supreme Court, a surprise to many who had been expecting that the ailing chief justice, William Rehnquist, would retire. Justice O'Connor, who is 75 years old, announced this morning that she will leave before the court begins its next term in October. Appointed to the court in 1981 by President Reagan, O'Connor has been a reliable swing vote on a closely divided Supreme Court. President Bush did not name a successor to Justice O'Connor when he spoke this morning, but he did have this to say.

Pres. BUSH: 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.

BRAND: Joining me for more now is NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

And, Don, everyone expected the announcement to be about the chief justice, but is this one a surprise?

DON GONYEA reporting:

This is a huge surprise today. We have all been focused on Chief Rehnquist and his health, and he's 80 years old, and we thought that he would be the one stepping down. Now that doesn't mean that Sandra Day O'Connor was off our radar. Her husband has had serious health problems, and there has been much talk, actually going back a couple of years, about whether or not she would be stepping down as each term ended. But then they recessed this past Monday, and there was no announcement from Rehnquist, again, is what we were looking for mostly on Monday. Nothing Tuesday, nothing Wednesday, nothing Thursday, so by Friday, you're thinking, `Well, I guess we're not going to get one,' then all of a sudden this hits today. So it's just huge news, and unexpected.

BRAND: And so what's next in the process for choosing a successor?

GONYEA: Well, the president says he wants to get a nominee out there pretty quickly and get them through the Senate confirmation process by the first Monday in October. He wants them to be there for the new term when the Supreme Court comes back after summer recess. So what he says is he has the Justice Department pulling together some nominees, people with the qualifications--they're looking into their background. They're looking at their rulings--and that they will present to him some qualified people and he will make a selection. So that's how the president described it himself today at least.

BRAND: So does he already have a list?

GONYEA: He has a list. He has a list that may change, and over the course of the past four years, there's been some kind of a list, if an informal one and maybe some names fall off and some names come on. But they do have some people in mind. But what we don't know if is any of those people will ultimately be the name that he does put forth.

BRAND: Now everyone's expecting a bruising battle between Democrats and Republicans given the recent battle over the appeals court nominees. What kind of pressure will the president face from his base?

GONYEA: Yeah. The battle, the pressure will not just be from Democrats. That's going to be there; that's a given. But for many of the president's most ardent supporters, those who describe themselves as Christian conservatives, this is the moment. This is why they worked so hard for him in 2000; this is why they worked so hard for him to get re-elected in 2004. It's why they were out there in Ohio and in Florida and Missouri, and in all of those swing states. And they feel that they really did put the president over the top. So they want a nominee who's going to be with them on the issues important to them--abortion, separation of church and state. We saw the Ten Commandments fight come up. And they want a real conservative, not another swing vote.

BRAND: NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea. Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

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