WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush’s re-election makes it more likely Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist will retire soon. And Republican gains in the Senate mean the president has more flexibility to nominate another strong conservative to fill that vacancy and other federal judgeships.

There has been no turnover at the Supreme Court in more than a decade, but a shake-up appears imminent now that Rehnquist is seriously ill with cancer.

While sidestepping questions about whom he might nominate to the court, Bush vowed Thursday to name judges like those he picked in his first term – often young and always conservative.

“There’s no vacancy for the Supreme Court, and I will deal with a vacancy when there is one,” the president said at a news conference. “I told the people on the campaign trail that I’ll pick somebody who knows the difference between personal opinion and the strict interpretation of the law.”

All but one of the nine Supreme Court justices are over 65, and several have had health problems. Still, the only imminent departure expected is that of Rehnquist, who revealed this week that he is receiving chemotherapy and radiation for thyroid cancer.

The 80-year-old Nixon appointee is too sick to sit on the bench, and cancer experts said his treatment indicates he likely has the most serious form of the disease. Neither Rehnquist nor his doctors have revealed details about the extent of his illness.

Although retirements in the middle of a Supreme Court term are rare, Rehnquist’s condition may force him to step down before Bush’s second term begins in January. The president’s re-election and GOP gains in the Senate – Republicans will hold a 55-seat majority – make it easier for Rehnquist to leave, said Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor and legal adviser in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

“I think he welcomes the idea that he will be able to leave the court at a time when his own political party is in the White House and when the balance in the Senate is more likely to confirm a nominee closer to his own legacy,” Kmiec said.

He said Rehnquist’s family – the widower has three children – and other close friends such as his regular poker buddies will likely encourage him to think of himself.

“They will say he no longer has to be concerned about the political calculus,” Kmiec said. “The people have resolved that for him.”

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