Even in Washington, a city full of leaks, there are some secrets you can keep from the President. Last Thursday, when most of the city was focused on the possibility that Chief Justice William Rehnquist was about to resign from the Supreme Court, White House counsel Harriet Miers got a call from Pamela Talkin, head marshal at the Supreme Court, who told her that a sealed letter from the court would be delivered to the White House the next morning. Talkin did not say what would be in it. But Miers, like everyone else, knew that the resignation of a Justice was probably imminent. She relayed Talkin's message to the President and the Vice President, who were having their weekly lunch in the small dining room just off the Oval Office.
The next morning Miers called the marshal's office at the Supreme Court and was told Talkin was now authorized to reveal that the letter would concern Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Miers eventually reached the President with the news. Not long after, with a White House photographer on hand to record the moment, George W. Bush placed a call to O'Connor. "I wish I was there to hug you," he told her. "For an old ranching girl, you turned out pretty good."
And full of surprises. For months partisans in Washington, and all around the country, have been gearing up for a fight over the next Supreme Court vacancy--just not quite the fight they got. Expectations that Rehnquist, 80, who is battling thyroid cancer, would step down have had constituencies on both left and right poised for battle. They have not had a high-court nomination to contend with since 1994, making this the longest the court has gone without any change in its membership since the 1820s. The less anticipated resignation of O'Connor, 75, abruptly raised the stakes. A contest over Rehnquist's successor would be pitched enough, but his departure would likely preserve the status quo. Rehnquist has been a consistent conservative vote on the court, and if he was succeeded by another firm conservative, the court's ideological balance would stay the same. O'Connor is another matter. For much of her 24 terms, she has been a critical swing vote on inflamed issues like abortion, affirmative action and church-state relations. If Bush can replace her with someone who doesn't know the meaning of the word swing, it would be an essential step toward realizing a decades-long conservative dream: a rock-solid majority on the court.
O'Connor's resignation came as a surprise but not a shock. There had been speculation for weeks that she might step down to spend more time with her husband John, who she has told friends is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Once she announced her decision, activist groups who had been focused on the world-after-Rehnquist regeared for a higher-stakes battle over her crucial seat. Those groups have been readying their cell phones and BlackBerrys for years. In an atmosphere of already heightened political polarization, when the U.S. is divided over an increasingly unpopular war and led by a President whose approval ratings have been notching down for months, they are promising to spend record amounts to turn this into a long, hot summer.