The Supreme Court has just finished a dress rehearsal for a future that may soon be reality, a new era of moderation no longer symbolized by its identity as "the Rehnquist Court."
Even without a change in its membership - although that seems to be coming, perhaps in just another year - the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist already is offering strong evidence that his style of deep conservatism is not likely to remain the majority style.Rehnquist has given not only his name to the court, as chief justices always do, but has been able in recent years to draw it deeper into the conservatism he personally has espoused for 20 years as a jurist.
Now, amid rising speculation in legal circles and at the court that he will retire at the beginning of next summer, perhaps along with the court's senior liberal, Justice Harry A. Blackmun, the "Rehnquist era" of conservative domination appears to be waning.
The court, the evidence from the term that closed last week suggests, is not now, and probably is not going to be, controlled by the most committed conservatives - the ones closest to Rehnquist in philosophy.
The tribunal most clearly is operating now under the moderate influence of three justices: Sandra Day O'Connor, the calming, "balance-wheel" justice who holds the court close to the middle; Anthony M. Kennedy, the conspicuous constitutional scholar with no ideological agenda; and David H. Souter, the two-year justice who already is well on his way to becoming an intellectual leader.
A rather odd tribute to their seeming control, almost any time they choose to exert it, came on the last day of the term in the historic abortion decision, when their jointly written opinion stirred a frustrated Justice Antonin Scalia into an outpouring of open wrath. It was a slashing gesture of the kind he made against O'Connor alone in the last abortion decision three years ago.
If the court's membership does undergo a change at the end of the next term, the O'Connor-Kennedy-Souter trio seems likely to hold sway over much of the court's work at least in the transition period to a new chief justice, no matter who that is.
President Bush, or a different president if Bush is sent home by the voters in November, may actually have two nominations to make next year.
Over the past several months, the talk of changes - long focused on Blackmun - has turned more toward the chief justice. Indeed, on the last day of the just-ended term, the speculation over Rehnquist's future was even more active than it was over a voluntary departure by Blackmun.