The death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist creates a rare double opening on the U.S. Supreme Court, giving President George W. Bush the chance to make a significant mark on the federal judiciary.
Rehnquist, a conservative force who pushed the closely divided nine-member court to the right in his more than 30 years on the bench, died on Saturday at age 80 after a battle with thyroid cancer.
His death came just a month before the court was to open its new session, and just days before the U.S. Senate was to open hearings on appeals court Judge John Roberts, chosen in July by Bush to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who has announced her resignation.
Not since 1971 has the court had two openings, but O’Connor has pledged to remain on the bench until her successor is confirmed by the Senate, assuring the court will open with at least eight members in October.
Given the enormous power the Supreme Court wields at the top of the judicial branch of government, the president’s choice for the post is scrutinized by all political stripes. Its decisions on constitutional issues are final.
The current court has been together for about 11 years, the longest period of stability since 1823.
Rehnquist carved out a record as one of the most conservative jurists in U.S. history on a court closely divided on such contentious issues as abortion, the death penalty and separation of church and state.
Bush is expected to replace Rehnquist with an equally conservative justice, and administration officials have talked about the possibility he would nominate Roberts as chief justice.
While criticized by some Democrats as out of the mainstream, Roberts had seemed likely to gain bipartisan confirmation by the Senate.
To fill a second opening on the court, Bush could also return to the list of candidates he considered before nominating Roberts.
Among the possible candidates are U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and appeals court Judge J. Michael Luttig. Bush could fill the two vacancies and then elevate a current justice such as Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas to the chief justice post.
At least one lawmaker, Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, urged Bush to focus first on relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina before turning his attention to the Supreme Court nomination.
“With Justice O’Connor committing to stay until her replacement is named, we can and should remain focused first on protecting our citizens who need help the most,” Kennedy said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, said Rehnquist “leaves behind a legacy as one of the most influential chief justices in our nation’s history.”
He was named by President Richard Nixon to the court and served for nearly 15 years before being elevated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 to be the 16th chief justice.
Despite his cancer diagnosis and treatment, he declined to retire, determined to perform his duties as chief justice as long as possible.
Rehnquist voted with the conservative majority to expand states’ rights in several areas and allow more public funding of religious activities.
He dissented on some landmark decisions on social issues, including the 1973 ruling that women have a constitutional right to an abortion and from the 2003 rulings upholding gay rights and the use of race in student admissions at public universities.
As the nation’s top judicial officer, Rehnquist presided over President Bill Clinton’s historic impeachment trial before the Senate in early 1999.
Rehnquist joined the court’s conservative majority as a bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote in 2000 to stop ballot recounts in Florida, effectively giving the presidency to Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore.
(Additional reporting by James Vicini, Steve Holland and Charles Abbott)