It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Uncertainty

Times Staff Writers

The possible retirement of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has taken shape as a hulking storm front approaching this anxious city. It won’t rain. It won’t blow over. It’s just parked there. Rumbling.

An entire industry of activist groups is waiting to lurch into action should the ailing jurist decide to create the first Supreme Court vacancy in 11 years -- as many experts had expected him to do Monday, when the high court issued its last rulings for the current session.

They all had game plans for what to do if Rehnquist announced his departure. But he didn’t, and now Washington is stuck in a heightened state of readiness.

Vacation plans are in limbo. Kids have been plopped into camps. Million-dollar ad campaigns are stuck in their starting blocks.


Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, a conservative group organizing support for President Bush’s judicial nominees, wore a necktie to work Monday so he’d look nice for television interviews that never happened.

One Democratic staff member for the Senate Judiciary Committee moved up her wedding plans from August to April, knowing she’d be good and married should the chief justice decide to make any summer announcements.

The office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, has been in a holding pattern for weeks. His senior aide, Stephanie Cutter, bought travel insurance so she can scratch her Labor Day trip to Paris if she needs to; communications director Laura Capps is planning a simple August camping trip with no hotel or plane to cancel, just in case.

And Laurie Boeder, director of media relations for the liberal group People for the American Way, was at her battle station this week, having canceled an annual trip with friends to Lake Elsie in North Dakota.


“That means I will miss the Fourth of July pontoon boat parade,” she said.

People for the American Way had staff at work all last weekend, making sure the research it had compiled on potential nominees was at the ready. The group was hardly disappointed when Rehnquist made no announcement: Liberals generally expect that his replacement will be no more to their liking.

The retirement of the 80-year-old chief justice, whenever it comes, is bound to prompt a clash of liberal and conservative titans. But how loud or how bloody, no one can say.

For Gary Bauer, a conservative activist who ran for president in 2000, the uncertainty has had one clear effect: “Increasing my personal purchase of Pepto-Bismol.”


The waiting game also is making some here feel rather unseemly. Most people have felt genuine compassion for Rehnquist since he was diagnosed as having thyroid cancer in the fall, even while they have been plotting strategies to influence the choice of his replacement.

“It’s always been a little uncomfortable for those of us who care about his potential vacancy to be hovering around like a bunch of vultures,” Bauer said.

But politics usually trumps protocol in Washington, and some interest groups haven’t bothered to wait for the official word.

Progress for America, a pro-Bush political organization, put up the first television ad of the court battle last week, spending $700,000 to warn that liberals would launch a smear campaign against whomever Bush nominates. The group has another ad ready to go to 8.7 million e-mail addresses, as well as banner ads for popular websites, spokesman Stuart Roy said.


“Everyone is ready for a great debate on the court, especially after some of the rulings this term,” Bauer said, referring to two decisions that limited property rights and the posting of the Ten Commandments. “It may be now, in six months, or in a year.”

To fully appreciate the restlessness, consider the Washingtonian rite of summer.

July Fourth is the kickoff, with tourists flocking here to see the glorious fireworks display on the National Mall -- which locals desperately avoid, leaving town if at all possible. Then folks count the days until August, when Congress adjourns and the city crawls into a state of hibernation -- sort of like Paris, but stickier. (Unlike the City of Light, the City of Marble was built on a swamp.) Anybody who is anybody heads for some oceanfront spot. Plans are usually made months in advance.

Not this time.


Tom Brune, Washington correspondent for Newsday, just put down a $250 last-minute deposit on a summer camp that his 12-year-old daughter had no interest in attending. He waited as long as he could. But with his wife heading out of town and the chief justice maddeningly mum, Brune said he couldn’t risk leaving his daughter alone in a breaking-news storm. Suspecting a Rehnquist announcement two years ago, he had refused to commit to a vacation, and his whole family went kayaking in Canada without him.

“Every June brings a sense of anticipation: Will it be this year?” Brune said. “After Rehnquist disclosed his illness last fall, I didn’t even bother to make vacation plans for this summer.”

It is not the powerful and famous who are most inconvenienced by the wait. If and when the vacancy comes, the White House will announce a nominee, who will go before the Senate for confirmation. In between, the heavy lifting will be done by staff and volunteers who will research the nominee’s background and shape the fight.

“I don’t know that there are very many members of the Senate who are in limbo right now,” one Senate Democratic aide said.


But much of Washington has been left to read tea leaves, studying the strength of Rehnquist’s voice (he breathes through a hole in his windpipe) and the steadiness of his gait (a cluster of photographers regularly stakes out his town house in suburban Virginia). They look to the president’s schedule for clues -- if it’s light, could it be he’s left room for something big?

Rehnquist has made fools of the prognosticators for years. And it’s possible he has done it again. Just in case, one Republican Senate aide decided, “I think we’ll be staying put and enjoying the nation’s capital.”