WASHINGTON - Sandra Day
"It has been a great privilege indeed to have served as a member of the court for 24 terms," the 75-year-old justice wrote Bush in a one-paragraph resignation letter. "I will leave it with enormous respect for the integrity of the court and its role under our constitutional structure" and said "the nation deserves a dignified" confirmation debate.
Officials said the president did not know until around 9 a.m. Friday that
O'Connor's retirement leaves Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the only woman among eight remaining justices. One official said Bush's "short list" had included only men, and suggested a quick move to expand the roster of contenders.
Already, battle lines were forming in anticipation of a summer confirmation struggle in the Senate - judicial philosophy, not gender, the key factor among outside groups as well as lawmakers.
"We'll look back on Justice
Progress for America, a conservative group, instantly launched a humorous Web-based advertisement meant to anticipate attacks on Bush's as-yet-unknown choice and mock them at the same time.
"The president nominated George Washington for the Supreme Court. Democrats immediately attacked Washington for his environmental record of chopping down cherry trees," it said.
Nowhere was O'Connor's judicial reasoning more widely studied than when it related to abortion - an issue that divides the court as it does the country.
She distanced herself both from her three colleagues who say there is no constitutional underpinning for a right to abortion - and also from others who argue the right is a given.
Then in 1992, she helped forge and lead a five-justice majority that reaffirmed the core holding of the 1973 ruling. Subsequent appointments secured the abortion right. Commentators called
"I don't think it's accurate," she said in an Associated Press interview.
The enormity of the reaction to O'Connor's appointment had surprised her. She received more than 60,000 letters in her first year, more than any one member in the court's history.
"I had no idea when I was appointed how much it would mean to many people around the country," she once said. "It affected them in a very personal way. People saw it as a signal that there are virtually unlimited opportunities for women. It's important to parents for their daughters, and to daughters for themselves."
At times, the constant publicity was almost unbearable. "I had never expected or aspired to be a Supreme Court justice. My first year on the court made me long at times for obscurity," she once said.