The retirement announcement by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on Friday caught most court observers by surprise. Just days ago, the expectation was high that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist would be stepping down for health reasons.

But Justice O'Connor beat him to the punch. She was appointed to the high court in 1981 by President Reagan and became the first woman to serve on the historic court. The court vacancy is the first in 11 years.

She is considered something of a swing vote or a moderate on the court and her tenure has been somewhat brief in court terms. Longevity is a tradition among justices. Justice William O. Douglas holds the record. He served 36 years on the court before his retirement in 1975. Justice Rehnquist and Justice John Paul Stevens have both served for more than 30 years.

Besides Mr. Rehnquist and Mr. Stevens, other justices are Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David Hackett Souter, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. President Bush has pledged to make a nomination in a timely fashion.

The appointment will be a major test for Mr. Bush. Conservatives will want someone of like mind to take her place. His detractors will want another moderate. Many from both sides will want a woman. The confirmation hearings in the Senate could make the United Nations ambassador proceedings look like child's play.

The correct appointment could boost Mr. Bush's sagging ratings and help him regain some trust lost over the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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