Book Excerpt: 'Supreme Conflict'

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O'Connor's secretary called Ginsburg's chambers. "You're going to get a letter from Justice O'Connor," she said. "You should open it right away."

Ginsburg was stunned. Kennedy, upon getting the letter, walked down the hall and gave O'Connor a hug. Clarence Thomas quickly called his wife, Ginni, who worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation, with the news. Minutes later, Thomas called back and asked his wife to urge her Heritage colleagues -- frustrated by years of O'Connor opinions -- not to say a negative word about her in the press.

Thomas, like the other justices, had grown fond of O'Connor. Depending on the age of the justice, the pioneering O'Connor was invariably described as a mother hen or a sister, the one who organized their lunches and kept things moving along. Even as the Court took up contentious issues that divided the justices as they divided the nation, the justices remained collegial. They credited O'Connor for much of that. They would miss her.

An hour later, one of the Court's Lincoln Town Car sedans whisked Talkin down Pennsylvania Avenue and into the White House, where she handed Miers the letter of resignation.

Before Talkin made it back to her office, Bush called the Court to speak with O'Connor and thank her for her service. The two spoke briefly. Bush invited her to the White House, but she declined. She had a plane to catch.

"For an old ranching girl, you turned out pretty good," Bush told O'Connor. "You're one of the great Americans." O'Connor found herself overcome with emotion, and her voice began to break.

"I wish I was there to hug you," Bush said.

Minutes later, O'Connor walked out of the courthouse with John at her side and headed to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The era of the so-called O'Connor Court was over.

Bush now had his chance. The battle would be epic. A new justice could provide the deciding vote on cases involving abortion, affirmative action, and religion. But the stakes, if anything, were even higher. O'Connor's retirement could change not only the Court's direction, but its very role in American life. For the past fifty years, beginning under the leadership of Earl Warren, the Court had confronted America's most pressing social controversies. The Court showed little hesi- tation in interjecting itself into those disputes and attempting to solve the nation's most vexing problems from the bench, even if that meant wresting them away from the state legislatures and the Congress.

In the 1950s, civil rights groups increasingly turned to the courts because elected officials did little or nothing to stop pervasive and virulent discrimination against African Americans. The Supreme Court responded with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which dismantled "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites throughout America. Segregation was outlawed by Brown, and only because the Warren Court ignored critics and intervened.

But the Court did not stop there. It began to see itself as a vital protector of rights and liberties, including those not specifically addressed in the Constitution. It recognized greater rights for criminal defendants. It imposed limits on religious expression. It identified new constitutional rights to privacy. Its role in American society grew. It became a moral compass.

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