Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and its moderating guide for 24 years on such hot-button issues as abortion and the death penalty, said yesterday that she would retire, touching off what is expected to be a fierce partisan battle to fill the first high court vacancy in more than a decade.
O'Connor, 75, who has been described as the court's most influential member and one of the nation's most powerful women, announced her retirement in a one-paragraph letter delivered early yesterday to the White House. She said she would remain on the court until her replacement is confirmed.
Her unexpected departure hands President Bush what could be his greatest opportunity to shift the ideological balance of the court further to the right by replacing O'Connor, generally viewed as a moderate, with someone more conservative on social issues - most prominently abortion rights, which O'Connor has consistently voted to uphold.
O'Connor's retirement could also mark just the first confirmation fight. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, has given no public clues about his plans, but he has thyroid cancer and for months has been widely expected to announce he will step down soon.
In brief remarks yesterday, Bush praised O'Connor's long record of public service and said he would nominate a new justice "in a timely manner."
After months of rancor on Capital Hill surrounding some of his choices for lower federal courts, Bush called for a "dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate, characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote."
The court began its three-month summer recess this week and does not open its next term until Oct. 3. The White House said that Bush would not name a nominee until he returns late next week from the Group of Eight summit meeting in Europe.
Early salvos yesterday promised one of the most contentious battles over a court nominee since Reagan appointee Robert H. Bork was rejected in 1987 by a Senate then controlled by Democrats.
Advocacy groups across the political spectrum immediately launched a barrage of e-mails, faxes, fund-raising pleas and advertisements yesterday to try to shape the debate over the court's future.
"I think everybody had thought that if Rehnquist goes, it would be a big fight, it would be a big deal, but this is really an earth-shaking resignation," said Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and former Justice Department official under President Bill Clinton.
"Finally, after all these many years, this could finally take the court in the direction that so many Republican presidents have hoped it would go."
O'Connor was appointed to the court in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, who made history by naming the first woman to the highest court but drew scorn from some of his most loyal supporters for picking a nominee whose record as a state legislator and state judge in Arizona signaled that she would support abortion rights.
Those predictions proved true. In nearly a quarter-century on the court, O'Connor has voted consistently to uphold abortion rights and angered staunch conservatives on other fronts as she carved out a careful, case-by-case record that included support for affirmative action and concern about administration of the death penalty.
But O'Connor, a daughter of Arizona ranchers who served on the court with an independent streak, did not fit any easy definitions. She was one of the court's strongest supporters of states' rights and of checks on presidential powers. She helped shift the court's views on sexual discrimination cases but did not consider herself a feminist.
She has been so closely watched on so many closely divided issues that some have referred to the current group of justices as the "O'Connor Court." Of the 193 cases that the court decided by a 5-4 vote since 1995, O'Connor was in the majority in 148.
The start of her law career was less auspicious. After graduating third in her class in 1952, the only job offer she could get at a California law firm was as a secretary.
She turned then to the public sector, after the county attorney in San Mateo County agreed to give her a job. In public appearances, and in her own writings, she has said she never dreamed she would end up on the most powerful court in the country.
"In the summer of 1981, life changed dramatically for me and my family," O'Connor wrote in the book Lazy B: Growing up on a cattle ranch in the American Southwest, which she wrote with her brother, H. Alan Day. "President Reagan announced my nomination as a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. It did not seem possible that a ranch girl would grow up to serve on our nation's highest court."
Before joining the court, O'Connor was the Arizona Senate's majority leader - the first woman to hold that office in any state Senate. She founded the Arizona Women Lawyers Association and the National Association of Women Judges.