The death last week of Chief Justice William Hubbs Rehnquist at 80 was a surprise but not a shock. He had been stricken with thyroid cancer last year and had been widely expected to resign over the summer. But "the Chief" pressed on with his work, hosted his annual basketball-and-croquet get-together with his former clerks in June, angrily denied he was resigning and watched his former Stanford Law School classmate Sandra Day O'Connor step down before him. Friends said Rehnquist had hoped to make it to the opening of the court on the first Monday in October.
Now about the only certain thing is that the U.S. Supreme Court will be at least one Justice short when it meets next month. The chances for a quick replacement do not favor the President. Under fire for his Administration's sluggish performance on Hurricane Katrina and beset by poor poll ratings on Iraq and energy policy, Bush will surely recalibrate any decisions he might have made before sending another name to the Senate. Besides, there is not much reason to hurry: the Senate Judiciary Committee had planned to meet for several days this week to consider the nomination of John Roberts to replace O'Connor as an associate justice--a schedule that will be affected by Rehnquist's funeral. Even if Roberts' nomination is approved this month, as is expected, the Senate is incapable of acting on two nominations in the next 30 days. If things go quickly--and in Supreme Court nomination politics, they almost never do--Bush will be lucky to have Rehnquist's replacement on the bench by mid-November.
But a big part of the timing comes down to who gets the nod. Until recently, Roberts' carefully measured conservatism left many legal experts certain that Bush would make a much more conservative second pick, tapping someone like appeals court Judges J. Michael Luttig or J. Harvie Wilkinson III, who have long been darlings of the conservative bar. But Bush's weaker political standing may nudge him another way now, toward someone like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, an African American or a woman like appellate court Judge Edith Clement.
In any case, the next chief will work in Rehnquist's shadow for at least a decade, if not longer. Appointed by Richard Nixon in 1971 to replace John Marshall Harlan and selected by Ronald Reagan in 1986 to succeed Warren Burger as Chief Justice, Rehnquist sat on the court for 33 years. Only four other Justices had longer terms. Rehnquist continued the rightward march of the court begun during the Burger era and executed what legal scholars call a revolution in federalism, leading the court in a series of decisions that returned powers to the states that Congress had tried to vest in Washington. That quiet overhaul of authority earned Rehnquist a place as "one of the most important figures in the entire history of American law," says Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago.