Book Excerpt: 'Supreme Conflict'


Some of the justices have speculated privately that O'Connor waited until Friday to announce her retirement in order to give Rehnquist a chance to retire first. But they are mistaken. O'Connor and her husband, John, were leaving town that day, and she wanted to be on her way before the news reporters descended. She had seen the crush of cameras outside Rehnquist's home, camped out for a photograph on the day of his expected retirement announcement. She was determined to avoid that public spectacle.

Talkin, who is the first woman to oversee the Court's operations and security as marshal, called White House Counsel Harriet Miers at the White House the next day. Miers, Bush's longtime adviser from Texas who'd come to Washington in 2001 to work in his administration, had become counsel only months before. But she knew the kind of justice Bush wanted to appoint, and she'd been involved in the discussions over possible replacements for Rehnquist. The conversation didn't take long. "I need to deliver something, a letter, from a justice," Talkin told Miers.

It was a call Miers had expected. All week the White House had waited for Rehnquist to make his announcement, and it had already lined up a handful of contenders for Bush to interview to replace him. But the White House had begun to doubt Rehnquist would leave. Talkin, on O'Connor's instructions, didn't tell Miers who had written the letter. She agreed to hand-deliver the letter to Miers in the White House the next morning at 10:30.

When Miers hung up the phone, she quickly notified Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who were having lunch, and then told her deputy, William Kelley. Only a few months into the White House job, Kelley had deep Supreme Court experience, having argued before the Court as a lawyer in the Bush and Clinton administrations and having served as a law clerk to Burger and Scalia before that.

Most of the work was done. Top White House officials, including Cheney, had been interviewing possible nominees to replace Rehnquist for the past two months, and they had winnowed down the list to a handful. Kelley had played a critical role in analyzing prospective nominees and their opinions and writings, to advise Bush on whether they'd remain solidly conservative once on the Court.

Talkin and officials in the court's public information office arrived early the next day, as did Miers and her team in the White House. Miers called Talkin again to ask if she could bring the letter fifteen minutes earlier than scheduled. Talkin agreed, and then she delivered the stunning news. "The letter," she told Miers, "is from Justice O'Connor."

The revelation came as a jolt, but it would be a mistake to say that Miers was shocked.With no news from Rehnquist, some -- notably the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol -- had already speculated that it would be O'Connor who would step down. Seasoned Court watchers didn't believe it, nor did O'Connor's friends. But Miers saw it as her job to anticipate every possible contingency, and O'Connor's retirement -- though unlikely -- was one she'd considered.

O'Connor had told only a handful of people about her plans. Not even her three boys knew. She'd written them letters several days before and timed them to arrive at their homes Friday, when everyone else heard the news. As Talkin was breaking the news to Miers, O'Connor's farewell letters were hitting the other justices' desks.

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