The U.S. Supreme Court that President Bush wants to stack with more conservatives recessed Monday with big rulings on a pair of religion and Internet cases but no announcement of widely anticipated retirements.
The possibility of a vacancy on the court has sparked intense preparations by both parties and their ideological allies, who anticipate a confirmation battle of enormous proportions that could eclipse the recent U.S. Senate showdown over lower court appointments.
On the last day of the term, it was Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the justice viewed as most likely to retire because of thyroid cancer, who announced from the bench that the Supreme Court would be in recess until Oct. 3. There was no mention of anyone retiring.
At the White House on Monday, where spokesmen have said President Bush was ready to step in with a quick nomination if there is an opening, spokesman Scott McClellan refused to answer questions about whether the White House had been notified of any vacancy.
“I’m not going to go down that road, I wouldn’t read anything into it one way or the other. If, obviously, there is something to announce, I imagine it would come out of the Supreme Court,” McClellan said.
After its public session, the court held a closed-door meeting to deal with pending cases and finish up the last remaining business for the 2004-05 term. The court’s last day is often a time when justices announce their retirements but in fact they can do it at any time.
While a replacement for the conservative Rehnquist, 80, would be unlikely to change the balance of the court, the narrow breakdown between conservative and liberal justices means a retirement of another more centrist justice like Sandra Day O’Connor, 75, or John Paul Stevens, 85, a member of the more liberal wing, could have much greater impact.
In the final day’s public action, the court remained sharply divided in several instances.
The court ended the term split in two important cases concerning church-state separation, with the justices declaring the posting of framed copies of the Ten Commandments in county courthouses as unconstitutional, but allowing a commandments monument on the Texas state Capitol grounds.
The difference between the 5-4 rulings on the politically charged issue turned on the intent of government officials concerning the displays and whether they conveyed a religious message.
“This is no time to turn our back on a principle of neutrality that has served freedom and liberty,” said Justice David Souter, one of the more liberal justices, in summarizing the ruling for the court majority.
The court was unanimous, however, in ruling Internet file-trading networks can be held liable when their users copy music, movies and other protected works without permission.
Online networks like Grokster and Morpheus allow millions of computer users to copy music and movies for free from each others’ hard drives.
The court overturned a ruling that cable high-speed Internet lines must be opened to rival online service providers, handing a victory to the Federal Communications Commission.
And the justices rejected an appeal by New York Times correspondent Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, who argued they should not have to reveal their confidential sources to a grand jury investigating the leak by government officials of a covert CIA operative’s name.
Without comment or recorded dissent, the justices let stand a U.S. appeals court ruling that the two journalists should be jailed for refusing to testify.
It was Rehnquist who announced the final ruling in the Texas Ten Commandments case, in a raspy, wheezing voice, delivered through a tracheotomy tube in his throat.
Still, he got a laugh from the staid Supreme Court audience of lawyers, journalists and the public after noting the numerous dissenting and concurring opinions by various high court justices in the case.
“I didn’t know we had that many people on our court,” Rehnquist said.