Bush's Supreme Court Picks Could Tilt The Scales On Abortion, Gay Marriage

Immigration rights also a hot-button issue as president mulls second nominee.

President George W. Bush is poised to spend another 28 months in the Oval Office, but he may be on the cusp of creating the legacy he will leave.

Long after American troops withdraw from Iraq and long after New Orleans has been rebuilt and repopulated, we will hear echoes of the 43rd president coming from the bench of the Supreme Court.

Bush is about to join the group of presidents who have made at least two lifetime appointments to the court and become only the 15th president to appoint a chief justice.

The death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist on Saturday has opened this door for Bush, who now has two vacancies to fill on the nation's highest court. The first opening came when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement earlier this summer (see "Sandra Day O'Connor, First Woman Supreme Court Justice, Announces Retirement").

Having already nominated John G. Roberts, a former Rehnquist clerk, to replace O'Connor (see "Bush Nominates Federal Judge John Roberts For Supreme Court"), Bush moved quickly to change Roberts' nomination to that of chief justice. Roberts — who served as a pallbearer as Rehnquist's casket was carried up the Supreme Court steps Tuesday morning (September 6) to the Great Hall — is now poised to follow his mentor to the highest seat on the highest court and will likely carry on Rehnquist's conservative legacy.

Roberts' confirmation hearing is set begin on September 12, according to Reuters. His hearing was originally slated to start Tuesday, but was pushed back due to Rehnquist's death. The hearings are expected to last three weeks before the committee goes to the chamber for a vote.

This leaves Bush, once again, with the task of filling Sandra Day O'Connor's seat. O'Connor, 75, was the first female justice in American history and, while regarded as a conservative, proved to be a crucial swing vote when it came to several hot-button issues, including her more liberal stances on abortion and the death penalty. O'Connor said she would remain on the bench until a replacement is confirmed.

A few of the issues Bush — and the rest of the country — will be thinking about as he chooses his nominee for the second spot:

  • Abortion - Even though Roe v. Wade was settled a generation ago, challenges to the watershed ruling continue to resurface in the court every few years. Will this justice be reliable to support the president's strong pro-life views, maintain a woman's right to choose, or will additional rulings severely limit the landmark 1973 decision?
  • Gay marriage - Same-sex marriage, which recently scored another victory in California (see "California Senate Approves Same-Sex Marriage Bill"), will be a key issue as well. In Massachussetts, the first and only state to legalize gay marriage, Republican Governor Mitt Romney wants the state's attorney general to certify an amendment to the state's constitution that would ban same-sex marriage but uphold civil unions. A similar amendment to Florida's constitution has just gone to the Supreme Court for review, and if passed, the initiative would ban same-sex marriage, civil unions and many benefits for gay couples.
  • Immigration rights - The governors of Arizona and New Mexico have both declared states of emergency due to border problems, and California and other states constantly wrangle over the issue of illegal immigrants having the right to a driver's license. Immigrants' enrollment in America's public schools and who foots the cost adds to the large scope of issues the Supreme Court may soon consider.

But one thing to remember is that while Bush's nominees might wind up spending decades interpreting the law of the land, they may not always make him perfectly happy as he watches on from his retirement perch. After all, just ask Bush's father, who undoubtedly kicked himself when his nominee, Justice David Souter, played a key role in upholding Roe v. Wade before Bush had even left office.