The retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor, the nation's first woman Supreme Court justice, presents President Bush and his social conservative supporters with the best opportunity in 14 years to significantly shift the court further to the right.
But with recent efforts by White House officials to float the possible nomination of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales it remains unclear whether Bush will view the opening on the high court as an opportunity to reward social conservatives for their votes in 2004 or to reach out to Hispanic voters in 2006 and 2008 by appointing a Hispanic to replace her.
In a Rose Garden statement Friday shortly after Justice O'Connor delivered her resignation letter to Bush, the president praised her 24 years of service on the high court and her fight to overcome gender discrimination. "This great lady... rose above the obstacles of an earlier time and became one of the most admired Americans of our time," Bush said.
He said the White House would name a replacement at a later time.
"Today..., is a day to honor the contributions of a fine citizen and great patriot," he said, referring to O'Connor.
In response to widespread expectations that the confirmation process could quickly degenerate into nomination Armageddon, Bush urged restraint. "The nation... deserves a dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate, characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote."
On the thorny issue of abortion, Justice O'Connor has been a reliable vote supporting a woman's right to choose. Her departure after 24 years on the court is expected to trigger all-out warfare by a broad coalition of liberal advocacy groups seeking to fend off attempts to push the court further to the right.
At the same time a number of conservative groups are urging President Bush to follow through on his campaign promise to appoint judges and justices in the mold of conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Both support overturning the abortion precedent, Roe v. Wade.
It is less certain how Mr. Gonzales might rule in a direct challenge to abortion rights, but many conservatives suspect based on his track record as a Texas Supreme Court judge that he would vote to uphold the precedent. Conservatives also distrust Gonzales because they believe he supports affirmative action.
Unlike the much anticipated retirement of conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the replacement of O'Connor with a more conservative justice could cause a major shift in the law in a variety of areas beyond the abortion dispute.
O'Connor is sometimes referred to as the most powerful woman in America because of her role as a key swing voter on the sharply divided court. When the court divides 4-4 on a hot button issue, O'Connor frequently breaks the deadlock and the resulting law mirrors her view of how the matter should be resolved.
Her power was evident in 2003 when she provided the critical fifth vote to uphold the constitutionality of affirmative action in university admissions.
In 2004 she was once again in the driver's seat at the center of the court writing for the majority that American citizens detained as enemy combatants within the US must be provided a level of due process in the civilian courts.
On the conservative side, her vote has been critical to the conservative wing's federalism revival. Her vote has also been critical in church-state cases. Earlier this week she sided with her more liberal colleagues in both of the two Ten Commandments cases. The move opened the way for Justice Stephen Breyer to serve as the key swing vote in those cases.
O'Connor was nominated in 1981 to the seat vacated by Potter Stewart. In naming O'Connor, President Reagan fulfilled a 1980 campaign pledge to name a woman to the high court.
O'Connor was born in El Paso, Texas, and was raised on her family's 198,000-acre cattle ranch, the Lazy-B, in southeastern Arizona. She attended Stanford University and Stanford Law School, graduating third in her class. (William Rehnquist graduated first in the same class.)
After graduation in 1952, she was unable to find a job as a private sector lawyer because none of the major firms in California would consider hiring a woman. One firm offered her a spot as a legal secretary. Instead, she accepted a post as deputy county attorney in San Mateo, Cal.
When her husband, John O'Connor, entered military service, she followed him to Frankfurt, Germany, where he worked in the US Army Judge Advocate General Corps. She worked as a civilian lawyer for the Quartermaster Corps.
After three years, the O'Connors returned to the US and moved to Maricopa County, Ariz. O'Connor opened her own firm and practiced law for two years before devoting her full-time attention to her three sons from 1960 to 1965. During this time she became active in volunteer organizations and the Arizona Republican Party.
In 1965, O'Connor became an assistant state attorney general. Four years later, she was appointed to fill a vacant seat in the Arizona state senate. She twice won reelection and in 1972 was elected senate majority leader, becoming the first woman in the US to rise to that level of government service.
In 1974, she was elected to a seat as a Maricopa County Superior Court judge. Five years later, the governor appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Within two years, she was selected for the US Supreme Court post.
Among those involved in her selection within the Reagan Administration was Attorney General William French Smith. Thirty years earlier he had been a partner in the California law firm that declined to hire O'Connor as a lawyer but offered her work as a secretary.
Her nomination was confirmed by the Senate 99-0. She was sworn in as a justice on September 25, 1981.