WASHINGTON – Despite Republican gains, President Bush's picks for potential vacancies on the Supreme Court (search) will face "political firestorm" in the Senate, the Bush administration's former chief lawyer at the high court said Thursday.
Theodore Olson (search), who resigned in July as solicitor general, predicted that Bush will get to name as many as three justices during his second term. Olson also said he expected that those choices will come under attack by interest groups and Senate Democrats who have already blocked 10 Bush nominees to other courts.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) is seriously ill with thyroid cancer. Olson said that people are hopeful the 80-year-old recovers, but "even if he does, actuarial reality tells us there may be vacancies soon."
"Make no mistake about it, any attempted new appointment to the court, especially that of a chief justice, will set off a political firestorm," Olson, 64, told the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. "The presidential election was merely about the next four years. A Supreme Court justice is for life. It will not be pretty."
Rehnquist has released no details about his prognosis. The widower is away from the court while receiving chemotherapy and radiation, a sign that he has an aggressive type of the disease.
In addition to Rehnquist, three other justices have had cancer. The average age of the nine court members is 70.
Speculation on a Supreme Court retirement has grown in part because there has been no vacancy in more than 10 years.
Olson reminded Federalist Society members of what he called malicious attacks on previous conservative nominees Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork. Thomas, named by Bush's father, was narrowly approved. Bork, a Reagan choice, was rejected.
"It could easily be worse next time around," Olson said.
Olson has been mentioned as a possible high court pick, but his confirmation for solicitor general was rocky. The Senate approved him 51-47 after intense wrangling and a special maneuver that got his nomination out of the deadlocked Judiciary Committee.
The crowd cheered Thursday when Olson said that five Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who have blocked votes on 10 of Bush's judges, are in their final days in Congress.
In a swipe at Daschle, who lost last week to Republican John Thune, Olson said that "even he, by the way, got a vote — not the vote he wanted but he got a vote — more than he gave 10 distinguished, honorable, exceptionally well-qualified Bush nominees."
Olson represented Bush before the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore four years ago then became solicitor general after Bush took office.
He held the job until this summer, when he returned to his previous law firm. He defended the administration's terrorism-fighting strategy, with some symbolism because his wife, Barbara, died aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush has not named a replacement for Olson. Paul Clement, who had been Olson's deputy, is acting solicitor general.