WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court and a moderate conservative who often cast the decisive vote on abortion and other contentious issues, announced her retirement on Friday, and a political battle immediately began over her successor.
"This is to inform you of my decision to retire from my position as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, effective upon the nomination and confirmation of my successor," O'Connor, 75, said in a letter to President George W. Bush.
O'Connor gave no reason why she was resigning from the nine-member court, whose decisions play a central role in shaping the social, cultural and political fabric of the United States. It has been closely divided on such hot-button issues as abortion, the death penalty and church-state separation.
A court spokeswoman cited O'Connor's age and said the justice, who is one of America's most powerful women, needed to spend time with her husband. He has Alzheimer's disease, people close to the family have said.
"It has been a great privilege, indeed, to have served as a member of the court for 24 terms," O'Connor said in the one-paragraph letter released by the Supreme Court.
Her resignation was announced four days after the end of the court's term. There had been widespread speculation that Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80, who has thyroid cancer, would resign at the end of the term, and even some of her colleagues did not think O'Connor would be leaving.
Her resignation allows Bush to make his first appointment to the high court, which must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Bush held off naming a replacement for at least a week but urged lawmakers to give his nominee "fair treatment."
Who Bush nominates could trigger a fierce fight between Republicans and Democrats and threaten a shaky truce over judicial nominations that has kept intact the minority's ability to block a controversial candidate.
Foreshadowing the likely battle over her successor, Bush came out into the White House Rose Garden with a message for lawmakers.
"The nation deserves and I will select a Supreme Court justice that Americans can be proud of. The nation also deserves a dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate, characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote," he said.
O'Connor's departure, the first in more than a decade, could shift the balance of power on the court, which has been closely divided between the conservative majority and a more liberal faction. Her announcement immediately set off a flurry of comment and activity among interest groups and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, a leading liberal in the Democratic Party, immediately challenged Bush.
"If the president nominates someone who threatens to roll back the rights and freedom of the American people, the American people will insist we oppose that nominee, and we will do so," the Massachusetts lawmaker said.
O'Connor has been a key vote to preserve the constitutional right to abortion and to allow race to remain a factor to be considered in admissions at universities.
BUSH TO BE 'DELIBERATE, THOROUGH'
Bush pledged to be "deliberate and thorough" in naming a replacement and said he would announce a nominee in a timely manner in hopes of having the new justice start work when the court reconvenes for its new term in October.
One possibility is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the former White House counsel and a longtime Bush aide dating back to when Bush was governor of Texas. Bush may want to make history by selecting the first Hispanic American for the Supreme Court.
Other possible candidates are conservative U.S. Appeals Court judges J. Harvie Wilkinson, J. Michael Luttig, Michael McConnell, John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Emilio Garza.
If Bush wants to name a conservative woman, possibilities include federal appeals court judges Edith Jones and Edith Brown Clement and Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the California Supreme Court, who was recently confirmed as a U.S. appeals court judge.
O'Connor's resignation triggered dueling news conferences and speeches by Senate Democrats and Republicans as they jockeyed for position in the pending confirmation contest.
Simultaneously, special interest groups from the right and left revved up their multimillion-dollar radio, TV and Internet campaigns that will seek to shape public opinion and thus Senate votes on whoever Bush ultimately picks.
Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican head of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will take up the nomination, said he would hold hearings in August if necessary. "The judiciary committee is prepared to proceed at any time," he said.
Senate Democrats, who blocked 10 of Bush's appeals court nominees during his first term, urged the president to consult with them before picking a Supreme Court candidate. Bush promised to consult with senators but was not specific.
Traveling in the Midwest, O'Connor got off a flight at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, preceded by Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, who told her, "I hate to see you go."
"I hate to go too," she replied. "It's been a real privilege."
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Thomas Ferraro)
Did you find this article insightful?