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Justices Host Hill Leaders

Meeting a Prelude to Vacancy?

In a highly unusual move, all nine Supreme Court justices broke bread with Congressional leaders last week in a small, private meeting that appears to have had no agenda other than creating better relations between the two branches of federal government.

Despite the strong possibility that the first vacancy in 11 years looms and a host of other critical issues are facing the federal judiciary, the justices hosted the meeting, although attendees said they were not seeking to make a pitch on any particular topic. Instead, lawmakers said, it was merely an attempt at getting to know each other better.

“It was remarkably devoid of issues. I think they just wanted to have a social event,” observed Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“No agenda. Nothing formal, we just had lunch,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist — the source of nonstop rumors regarding his potential retirement — came by the luncheon in the court’s conference room Thursday afternoon and spoke for a few minutes before leaving, according to Senators in attendance.

“He looked good and he looked strong,” noted Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee would play a lead role in any confirmation hearings for a Rehnquist replacement.

Asked if Rehnquist even hinted at his looming decision, Leahy said “not at all.”

The Members of Congress attending the luncheon included the top four elected Senate leaders — Reid, McConnell, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) — as well as the top four elected House leaders. In addition, at least a handful of members from key committees, such as Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), were also in attendance.

The meeting comes against the backdrop of a possible retirement by Rehnquist or others and follows closely on the heels of the Senate’s fight over the filibustering of judicial nominees. It also came less than three months after the fallout from the Terri Schiavo case, in which some GOP leaders, including Sensenbrenner and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), were highly critical of federal judges.

For many years, Rehnquist has been calling for higher pay for federal judges, and, in the wake of a flurry of attacks on judges, some in the judiciary want Congress to step up funding for increased security at federal courthouses across the country.

That context prompted some Congressional sources to muse that the lunch was an attempt by Rehnquist to leave relations between the two branches in good standing as he heads into retirement.

But Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Rehnquist made clear that he called the session simply as an opportunity for Members and Justices to “sit down, break bread and get together.”

Hoyer did note, however, that it wouldn’t be wrong to conclude that the meeting was designed to mend fractures between the two entities.

“It would be hard to believe that there’s no relationship between [Thursday’s overture and] the assault that a number of the leaders on the Republican side have made on the judiciary with threats designed to intimidate or influence,” he said.

The afternoon provided a chance for rare meetings between a group of men and women who work across the street from one another at the highest levels of government but many of whom had never even met one another.

Durbin and Justice Clarence Thomas, for example, sat at a table together with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sensenbrenner and Justice John Paul Stevens, among others.

Durbin had never met either Thomas or Stevens.

“I had a perfectly nice conversation about his days in the Catholic seminary,” Durbin said of Thomas, who after attending Jesuit high school and college, briefly entered Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri.

And Stevens, Pelosi and Durbin struck up a conversation about the Justice’s days in Chicago. “It’s a gracious invitation,” Durbin said of the lunch.

Leahy had the rare opportunity to speak with both House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Leahy said he encouraged the justices to continue this approach.

One Democratic Congressional source said that the meeting was “very rare” if not unprecedented, and couldn’t be sure if this would become a new tradition.

“Those Congressional leaders rarely have lunch together much less have lunch with the Supreme Court,” said the staffer.

It’s unclear how long the era of goodwill can last, particularly if Rehnquist steps down and a brutal nomination fight ensues. But Reid noted Tuesday that the Bush administration made its own overture on Monday by sending White House Counsel Harriet Miers to meet with the Minority Leader, a simple courtesy call but one that Reid appreciated.

While she “felt uncomfortable” talking about any vacancy in the court, Reid said he appreciated it. “I think the Miers thing was a step in the right direction,” he added.

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