The resignation of Justice William J. Brennan Jr., the oldest member of the Supreme Court and one of its few remaining liberals, is a stunning development that gives President Bush an opportunity to solidify the court's conservative majority.
Brennan's successor could tip the balance on the most politically and emotionally sensitive issues confronted by the closely divided court, especially abortion and preferences for minorities and women.One more conservative justice could provide a fifth vote on the nine-member court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 landmark that gave women a constitutional right to choose to end their pregnancies.
"Brennan's resignation is a call to arms for American women," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority and former leader of the National Organization for Women.
Bush plans to meet with White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh Saturday morning to begin the process of selecting a successor to Brennan.
Among the rumored possibilities are U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, 43, the administration's chief advocate at the Supreme Court and a former federal appeals judge; Patrick Higginbotham, 51, a federal appeals judge in Dallas; U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills and Thornburgh.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One while returning from a trip to California, Bush praised Brennan's service on the court.
Brennan, a man of great charm, energy and affability, is credited by court historians as being Chief Justice Earl Warren's chief deputy when the Warren Court was pumping out a succession of liberal milestone rulings in the 1950s and 1960s.
Then as the court grew more conservative in the 1970s and 1980s, Brennan became the keeper of the liberal flame, striving to preserve the Warren Court precedents, seeking to limit the erosion of them and sometimes firing off angry dissents.
"You could almost count on Brennan to come out with a standard Warren Court liberal interpretation on just about any issue," said associate political science professor William Lasser of Clemson University, a specialist on the Constitution.
"But this is the last dissent. I think it could easily turn into a rout," Lasser said. He explained that the court's other liberal octogenarians - Marshall, 82, and Harry A. Blackmun, 81 - "have less incentive to hang around now."
"If not now, maybe in a year they may say `well, it's all over.' "