Sandra Day O'Connor retires

In a surprise announcement Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court and a key swing vote on issues such as abortion and the death penalty, said today she is retiring.

O’Connor, 75, said she expects to leave before the start of the court’s next term in October, or whenever the Senate confirms her successor. There was no immediate word from the White House on who might be nominated to replace O’Connor.

It’s been 11 years since the last opening on the court, one of the longest uninterrupted stretches in history. O’Connor’s decision gives Bush his first opportunity to appoint a justice.

There has been wide speculation that conservative chief justice William Rehnquist, who has been battling cancer, would announce his retirement, but so far he hasn’t.

Since Bush would most likely nominate a right wing extremist, the replacement of a conservative justice such as Rehnquist wouldn’t make an appreciable difference in the Supreme Court’s makeup, but losing a critical moderate swing vote such as O’Connor could be devastating to the social progress we’ve made in the past half century.

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