Today's retirement announcement by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, aside from ruining the vacation plans of the people who work for advocacy groups on both sides of the judicial divide, created two immediate political questions. The first is what Bush will do now that he finally has the opportunity to make an appointment that could reshape the Court. I did an extensive post over at TPMCafe predicting he had little choice, and probably even less inclination, to do anything other than give the Cultural Right what it wants: a sure vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. So I won't recapitulate the whole argument here.
But the second question remains open: exactly how much should Democrats, and particularly pro-choice Democrats, invest in trying to stop Bush from doing what he's probably going to do? More to the point, do Senate Democrats launch a filibuster, risk triggering the "nuclear option," and pretty much shut down Washington for the rest of the year?
Scanning the Left and Center-Left blogosphere today, I was a bit surprised to discover more doubt on this question than I expected.
The main reason for debate is the recognition that replacing O'Connor with a Justice determined to reverse Roe would still leave right-to-lifers one vote short, based on the lineup in the last big case where the Court reaffirmed basic abortion rights, Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992). The confusion on this subject probably flows from a misunderstanding over Justice Kennedy's dissenting vote in the 2000 Stenberg case, which struck down a state "partial-birth" abortion ban. The decision of leading abortion rights activists to make the "partial-birth" issue a litmus test for qualifying as "pro-choice" led to a lot of commentary after Stenberg that Kennedy had flipped to the dark side. But while Kennedy may support some erosion of Roe on the margins, it's hard to imagine him contradicting his position in Casey, which flatly accepted abortion rights as a matter of settled precedent.
So: the O'Connor replacement is not necessarily a direct threat to abortion rights. But for the same reason, this appointment truly is a crisis point for those who want to overturn Roe. They need to flip the O'Connor vote, maintain Rehnquist's anti-Roe vote (assuming he's forced to retire at some point), and then hope John Paul Stevens, who's 85, will quit before Bush's second term ends. Otherwise, they'll have to count on another Republican president to get the job done, and right now, 2008 is hardly looking like a GOP slam dunk.
The asymetrical stakes of the two sides on the abortion issue with respect to this particular nomination provides Democrats with several options. They can simply spot Bush a fourth vote to overturn Roe, and focus on the broader constitutional issues particular nominees might pose (this may well be Harry Reid's strategy in suggesting several anti-abortion Republican Senators that Democrats could accept). They can play rope-a-dope by opposing Bush's appointment and dragging it out, without resorting to a filibuster. Or they can go to the mattresses.
I have no settled opinion at this time about what Democrats should do. But it's nice for once to have our side enjoying some tactical flexibility, while the all-powerful GOP is lashed to the mast of its alliance with the Cultural Right. --