Out of a job?

Posted: Jun 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Stop me if you’ve read this story before.

“Well-informed court observers say that there could be two Supreme Court resignations next month,” Newsday reported on May 18. “Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist’s is considered likely, though not certain, while Sandra Day O’Connor’s is considered likely by some court insiders and less so by others.”

In a June 6 story about abortion rights, the Christian Science Monitor said, “If one or more Supreme Court justices retires soon -- a distinct possibility -- World War III may break out in Washington over whom Bush nominates and what his or her stand on abortion might be.”

Newspapers from the Seattle Times to the San Antonio Express-News have published stories naming likely successors to the justices who are said to be likely to step down.

The problem is that no resignation is in the offing.

Consider this: The court just agreed to hear arguments about the controversial Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in September, a month before its next term begins. That means the justices will be working through the summer reading briefs, not sipping lemonade by the pool. Why would one of the justices have agreed to hear that case if he or she was thinking of leaving the court in July?

In addition, Chief Rehnquist recently rehired his administrative assistant for another year.

Justice O’Connor, meanwhile, just published a book and plans to travel to Bahrain in the fall to help that country improve its courts. Are those the actions of someone who’s planning for retirement?

So, barring any health problems, expect all the justices to stay put.

The real problem with the resignation story isn’t simply that it’s probably wrong. It’s that the story is repeatedly wrong. It’s a summer rerun.

“With the Supreme Court term ended, rumors are swirling around the possibility that one of the nine justices might retire,” the Houston Chronicle reported on July 7, 2002. And last June the Arizona Republic Web site was reporting that Rehnquist might leave “as early as summer.”

Like a hardy perennial, this story also popped up in major newspapers two years ago. Newsday was on the case back on May 4, 2001, “preprising” this year’s reporting. “Several justices have indicated they might like to retire, although none has said retirement is imminent,” the paper warned.
Earlier, on April 22, the Boston Globe editorialized, “If a vacancy opens on the Supreme Court -- probable, since three justices are over 70 and two have said they would like to retire…”

One of those purportedly departing justices was a familiar name. On May 2, 2001 the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Following on the heels of news that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor may retire this summer…”

Justice O’Connor could be forgiven if she decided to paraphrase Mark Twain: “Rumors of my impending resignation are exaggerated, and have been for years.”

 So the pattern is well established. Each spring, major newspapers will pump out stories saying at least one of the justices plans to go. They’ll note that the justices have indicated they “might like to retire,” without ever pointing out when, where and how the justice said that. If asked, wouldn’t all of us say we’d “like to retire?” Some day, at least.

But in fact, the members of this Supreme Court have been together since 1994, making it the longest serving nine-member court ever. They clearly enjoy their jobs, their proximity to power, and the authority they wield.

Yes, one of these years one of the justices will leave.

Rest assured that retirement will have been preceded by a series of newspaper stories predicting it. The pundits will pat themselves on the back for accurately predicting it.

But in order to congratulate themselves, they’ll have to ignore their years worth of incorrect predictions. All they’ll have really proven is that if you say the same thing year after year, you’ll eventually be correct.