Fifty-three years as a journalist covering the highest court in the land have given Lyle Denniston some sense of the politics that govern the U.S. Supreme Court.
His prediction: Given the Senate's nearly even split down party lines, it won't approve any strongly conservative or liberal nominee in the near future.
In that respect, the court will remain an "O'Connor Court," Denniston told about 40 Kansas University law students and faculty members Tuesday afternoon. Denniston is a former Baltimore Sun reporter. The senior member of the Supreme Court press corps, he now covers the court for the Boston Globe. His lecture, "The Once and Future 'O'Connor Court'" was part of the law school's Stephenson Lectures on Law and Government series.
Though the typical way to label a Supreme Court is to call it by the name of its chief justice, Denniston said today's court really belongs to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor because she is the most dominant and influential of the nine justices. She has shaped the court's jurisprudential character, Denniston said, on issues such as race relations and affirmative action, women's rights, federalism, capital punishment and habeas corpus.
If Chief Justice William Rehnquist retires, which many expect to happen soon, "O'Connor very well might be the next chief justice," Denniston said, leaving the door open for President Bush to appoint the first Hispanic-American, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, to the court.
Even if O'Connor were to retire, the court would continue to be characterized by her moderate approach, Denniston said, because this year's congressional elections shouldn't drastically tilt the balance of power in the Senate.
"The political situation surrounding nominations to the Supreme Court is such that a centrist court one dominated by judicial sentiments close to those of O'Connor is the only kind that is likely to emerge, now and for the foreseeable future," he said.
Denniston is the author of "The Reporter and the Law: Techniques of Covering the Courts."