Chief Justice Rehnquist apparently will indicate that he’s thinking about retirement on NBC’s Today Show this week. Rehnquist is 79 years old, which isn’t record-breaking on the Court by any means, but Rehnquist has served since 1972 (if I recall correctly, having been an Associate Justice prior to his elevation to Chief in 1986). Naturally, nothing is going to happen this year, since nobody wants a appointment battle during an election year.
But this is all the more reason for Democrats and progressives of all stripes to support Kerry with labor and dollars. Presidents only rarely get to appoint Justices – it’s been nearly a decade since the last nomination – and even less rarely a Chief Justice. Conservatives and “strict constructionists” have held sway on the Court since Thomas was appointed, and have done considerable damage to civil rights via procedural restrictions. The next Administration likely gets to nominate not only a Chief Justice, but at least one (maybe two) Associate Justices (given Stevens and O’Connor’s age and health). A Bush victory could lock up the conservative majority on the Court for another 20+ years; a Kerry victory could inject balance into the Court’s stances on key issues for the same period. We’re unlikely to see the return of the Warren Court anytime soon, but we could sure use another Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, or Thurgood Marshall.