Chief Justice William Rehnquist

Following on the heels of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist is preparing to step down, according to court sources cited by columnist Robert Novak.

In an interview today with CNN, Novak said Rehnquist’s retirement would be announced after the president’s plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base at about 4:50 p.m. Eastern time.

But other sources say the announcement will come Monday, according to the Drudge Report.

Asked by a reporter today if any speculation about his resignation is true, Rehnquist said: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

Novak wrote in a column yesterday that court sources said Rehnquist would resign by the end of the week.

O’Connor surprised many court watchers when she gave President Bush a resignation letter last Friday while all eyes were on the ailing Rehnquist.

Rehnquist, 80, was treated last fall for thyroid cancer and has appeared frail since his return to the court in March.

If the chief justice steps down, it would create the first simultaneous high court openings in 34 years. In 1971, President Nixon appointed Rehnquist and Lewis Powell when Justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan retired.

O’Connor, 75, said Friday she needed to spend time with her husband, who reportedly suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

In his column yesterday, Novak said a Rehnquist retirement would enable President Bush to nominate Attorney General Alberto Gonzales despite fierce opposition from the president’s own political base.

The thinking is that with two openings, Bush could “name one justice no less conservative than Rehnquist, and name Gonzales, whose past record suggests he would replicate retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on abortion and possibly other social issues. Thus, the present ideological orientation of the court would be unchanged, which would suit the left just fine.”

Novak commented that “Gonzales would not exactly be another O’Connor, but he is still considered a disaster by Republican conservatives. He also is the best Democrats can hope for.”

A Rehnquist retirement would present the possibility of having hearings for more than one justice at a time in order to have a full court before the start of the next term in October. But Democrats have said they oppose simultaneous hearings.

Bush also would have to nominate a new chief justice. He could promote Justice Clarence Thomas or Justice Antonin Scalia and name two new associate justices. But many analysts believe it’s more likely he will choose a chief justice from outside the court.

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