WASHINGTON – Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) may feel freer to step down with the Senate judicial standoff muted and the Supreme Court weeks away from the end of its term.
A compromise forged by centrist senators on Monday averted a showdown over President Bush's judge nominees and the Senate's filibuster rules.
While the deal won't stop Democratic senators from trying to block the next Supreme Court nominee, and was tested with Bush's choice for U.N. ambassador, it temporarily eased tensions over judicial confirmations.
"There's just no better time for Rehnquist to leave than now, from a political standpoint," said John McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern University who worked in the administration of Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush.
Rehnquist, 80, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last fall, but he has released few details about his illness and no clues about his future plans.
A departure makes sense now, McGinnis said, because Republicans risk losing Senate seats in elections next year. In addition, he said, Bush's victory over Democrat John Kerry last fall eased friction over the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling that tipped the 2000 election to Bush.
Rehnquist, a Republican, sided with Bush in the 2000 case. If he steps down, he can expect the White House to choose a conservative successor.
"Rehnquist probably feels it's about as good of a time to retire as any," said Joel Grossman, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. Rehnquist and other justices were likely following with interest developments in the Senate debate over judicial confirmations, he said.
On Monday, Justice John Paul Stevens (search) used an Oklahoma elections case to raise concerns about party politics. Stevens, at 85 the oldest justice, noted "bitter partisanship that has already poisoned some of those bodies that once provided inspiring examples of courteous adversary debate and deliberation." It was an apparent reference to the Senate.
Washington attorney Chuck Cooper, a former Rehnquist clerk, said the chief justice "is extremely politically savvy" and probably recognizes that any high court retirement will prompt a bitter partisan clash in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had wanted to ban the process that allows opponents of legislation or a nomination to prevent final action by erecting a 60-vote hurdle.
The deal reached by moderates averted a raucous vote, but was opposed by Frist. Senators kept the rules and Democrats promised to filibuster future Bush nominees only under extraordinary circumstances.
The deal was immediately tested when Democrats forced a delay Thursday in a confirmation vote for John R. Bolton as U.N. ambassador.
"If anybody was hoping an agreement would grease the skids for a Supreme Court vacancy, I don't think that happened," said Stephen Wermiel, an American University law professor.
And Wermiel said while a Rehnquist departure seems more likely than not — creating the court's first vacancy in a modern era record 11 years — one mystery in the calculation is how sick Rehnquist is. The chief justice has revealed that he received radiation and chemotherapy, treatment that is generally used for the most aggressive type of thyroid cancer.
On Monday, Rehnquist was seen in a wheelchair at the Capitol medical office, but no explanation was given for the visit. In March he was taken by ambulance to a hospital after developing a problem with the tracheotomy tube that helps him breathe.
His only public events are brief open sessions of the court, scheduled once a week through the end of June for justices to announce opinions in the 29 cases that are still pending. Subjects still to be addressed include medical marijuana and displays of the Ten Commandments (search) on public property.
The court's last scheduled meeting day is for its current session is June 27, but justices will likely meet a second time that week to dispose of the final difficult cases.