Judge dread

Readers of GetReligion are not allowed to enjoy this paragraph. Don't even think about it:

TV news crews and an Associated Press photographer waited in pelting rain for three hours Friday morning for [Chief Justice William] Rehnquist to emerge from his suburban Virginia town house. He eventually did, wishing reporters a good morning. When asked about retirement rumors, he answered, "That's for me to know and you to find out," before getting into a waiting car.

It's from Gina Holland's excellent AP story on Supreme Court retirement rumors currently swirling around that cauldron of gossip and innuendo called Washington, D.C.

Holland does a good job of showing both the pack mentality of journalists and the massive uncertainty that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor created when she announced her retirement. Right now, anything seems possible, and my fellow ink- (and pixel-) stained toilers don't want to be the second to know:

The press room at the Supreme Court was filled, a rarity during a time when the court is not in session. And the rumors flew.

E-mails to reporters from various groups speculated when Rehnquist would make an announcement and also speculated about other possibilities.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who is 85 and healthy, may be going, the speculation went. Stevens is the court's liberal leader and would seem an unlikely prospect with a Republican in the White House and GOP-controlled Senate.

He also has already started hiring law clerks to work for him in 2006-07. That could be a sign that he's sticking around for a while. Or that he's sneaky and wants to keep reporters off his trail. [If so, there are going to be some pissed off Yale law students in the fall -- ed.]

Next came hints that the real retirement would be that of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the petite opera lover President Bill Clinton put on the bench in 1993.

The one bit of speculation that Holland didn't sneak into the piece is that the chief justice delayed the announcement of his retirement in deference to the recent ugliness in London. He might have considered it in poor form to announce his departure so soon after the president got caught in the middle of another terror dustup while in Scotland.

Whatever the case, there's a sense in this city that we're in for it: multiple confirmations; vitriolic arguments about abortion; charges of dishonesty and cronyism; charges of a coup d'état by liberals; rent garments over potential betrayal by conservatives; and generally lots and lots of speechifying.

It's likely to start off nasty and get worse as Bush's second term drags on. The press has had this unfortunate tendency to reduce the issue of judges to arguments about abortion and school prayer, but the disgust with the court by people loosely grouped together under the banner of the political right is fairly ecumenical and far-reaching.

For instance, a source in New Hampshire tells me there is reason to be optimistic that efforts to bulldoze Justice David Souter's mum's house over the Kelo ruling stand at least a fighting chance. If the home wreckers succeed, would Souter retire early or cling on to the bitter end? There hasn't been a lot of talk about this in D.C. because news that some locals were trying to bring it to a vote was, roughly speaking, laughed out of polite society.

But politeness only goes so far. Many of the justices are getting long in the tooth, and the time for speculation is now. Will John Paul Stevens be able to make it to the end of Bush's second term? Will Ginsburg? Will Bush make good on his deal with the right to reshape the court along more rigorous originalist lines? And will we have a fistfight on the floor of the Senate before this is all over?

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