US Supreme Court's top justice dies

William Rehnquist, thelong-serving chief justice, has died, leaving a second vacancy on the US Supreme Court and giving President George W. Bush the opportunity to steer America's top judicial body in a solidly conservative direction.

Although Mr Rehnquist, 80, had been suffering from thyroid cancer for almost a year, he defied widespread speculation that he would step down, saying he would remain as long as his health allowed.

His death on Saturday came just two months after the resignation of Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate justice who had dismayed Republican conservatives by frequently siding with the nine-strong court's liberal wing.

The US Senate is set tomorrow to begin consideration of her proposed replacement, John Roberts, a former Reagan administration official with solid conservative credentials. But his scant two-year record as a judge has left supporters and opponents with no clear idea of how he would vote on the top court.

Mr Bush yesterday said Mr Rehnquist's death represented "a great loss for the court and for our country" but added that the interests of the nation would be best served by a prompt decision on his successor.

However, he has also come under pressure to defer a decision until the situation in New Orleans is under control. Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the president and Congress should now focus on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Mr Bush can either choose a new chief justice from outside the court or promote an existing justice. But since the chief justice has only one vote on the nine-member court, the more important decision will be the choice of a new justice.

Among the favourite candidates for conservative Republicans is Michael Luttig, who has served 14 years on Virginia's 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, one level below the Supreme Court. But Mr Bush could also decide to nominate his friend, Alberto Gonzales, the attorney-general, Financial Times reports.

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