WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a key swing vote on the U.S. Supreme Court, is retiring, giving President Bush a chance to shape the court for years to come.
Bush said he was proud to know O'Connor and praised her as a "discerning and conscientious judge."
"This great lady born in El Paso, Texas, rose above the obstacles of the time and became a great lady," Bush said.
O'Connor has often been the deciding vote on social issues, joining the four-liberal bloc justices to preserve abortion rights -- and strike down bans on partial-birth abortions -- and to keep the wall between church and state.
In her resignation letter to Bush, O'Connor wrote: "This is to inform you of my decision to retire from my position as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States effective upon the nomination and confirmation of my successor. It has been a great privilege, indeed, to have served as a member of the court for 24 terms. I will leave it with enormous respect for the integrity of the court and its role under our constitutional structure."
Earlier this week she was part of a 5-4 majority striking down Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky courthouses, and a 4-5 minority that failed to outlaw a commandments monument on the Texas Statehouse grounds.
She has also joined majorities in supporting gay rights and affirmative action in law schools and elsewhere.
If she is replaced with a more consistent conservative, all of those slim majority decisions could go the other way.
O'Connor, 75, was appointed the first woman justice on the high court in 1981. "I've always said it's great to be the first but you don't want to be the last," she has said.
The Bush administration has been preparing for an opening on the court. The last vacancy was 11 years ago, the longest period without a vacancy since the first half of the 19th century.
In a Rose Garden appearance, Bush called for a dignified process to replace O'Connor. He said he would ask the Justice Department and his staff to draw up a list of qualified candidates. He said he hopes a new justice can be approved before the start of the court's next term, Oct. 3.