In her new book, "Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court," ABC News correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg was allowed an unprecedented look at the highest court in the land, starting with the Rehnquist court and extending through the nominations of Samuel Alito and John Roberts. She also covers the failed nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers, which she says Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez tried to hard to prevent. The following is an excerpt of that book.
The nine justices emerged from behind the red velvet curtains right on time, as always, at 10 a.m. They are never late or early, no matter how small or big the cases before them. They follow a routine dictated by custom and tradition.
About ten minutes beforehand, the associate justices donned their black robes in a paneled changing room just behind the courtroom and gathered next door in the oak-paneled conference room where they meet to discuss cases. The room is just outside the chief justice's chambers, and as always, he joined them already wearing his robe. Right before the appointed hour, they all shook hands. Then they walked single file behind their chief, in order of seniority, to wait behind those velvet curtains. As the Court's marshal announced "the honorable, the chief justice and the associate justices of the United States of America," an aide swept back the curtains, and the justices stepped into the room.
On this day, like all other days on the Court calendar, a hush preceded the marshal's announcement, as if the spectators in the surprisingly intimate marble courtroom suddenly and all at once noticed that it was time. But on this day, the hush seemed more profound, as if the crowd thought it could somehow will the justices into the courtroom a moment or two early. It was a big day, a historic day in the minds of many. All the seats were full, some with top government officials ushered in by Supreme Court police officers, others with people who had camped out overnight in the sticky heat of Washington in late June.
The justices stepped up to their long wooden bench in unison and pulled back their high-backed black leather chairs. The scene was carefully choreographed, but also well practiced. This group had worked together for eleven years. As the justices sat down in their seats, the people in the audience sat up straighter in theirs. Some leaned forward. Everyone, even the justices, looked at the gaunt man in the middle of the bench. It was the last time they expected to see Chief Justice William Rehnquist in that seat, controlling a court he'd led for nineteen years.
Rehnquist was eighty years old, and he was dying of cancer. Many in the courtroom on the last day of the 2004-5 term had come to see him announce the inevitable: He was retiring after thirty-three years on the Supreme Court. The White House had already begun interviewing possible replacements. Journalists had worked up lengthy stories about his legacy, to run when he made his announcement. Former law clerks had considered the remarks they would offer, if asked, about the chief 's curious mix of stern leadership and personal warmth. More than one planned to talk about how it was a testament to Rehnquist's willpower and love of the institution that he had managed to finish out the term despite the illness that had weakened him. He was not the kind to leave his ship midcourse; he had steered it home.