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Associate Justice John Paul Stevens sits for a new group photograph at the Supreme Court in Washington in 2009. Stevens, leader of Supreme Court's liberals, will retire this summer. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announces retirement

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WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's oldest member and leader of its liberal bloc, is retiring. President Barack Obama now has his second high court opening to fill.

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Stevens said today he will step down when the court finishes its work for the summer in late June or early July. He said he hopes his successor is confirmed "well in advance of the commencement of the court's next term."

The timing of Stevens' announcement leaves ample time for the White House to settle on a successor and for Senate Democrats, who control a 59-vote majority, to conduct confirmation hearings and a vote before the court's next term begins in October. Republicans have not ruled out an attempt to delay confirmation.

His announcement had been hinted at for months. It comes 11 days before his 90th birthday.

Stevens began signaling a possible retirement last summer when he hired just one of his usual complement of four law clerks for the next court term. He acknowledged in several interviews that he was contemplating stepping down and would certainly do so during Obama's presidency.

Chief Justice John Roberts said in a written statement that Stevens has earned the gratitude and admiration of the American people.

"He has enriched the lives of everyone at the Court through his intellect, independence, and warm grace," Roberts said.

Stevens informed Obama in a one-paragraph letter addressed to "My dear Mr. President," officially received by the White House at 10:30 a.m. EDT, two minutes before the public announcement. The news came on a day when the court wasn't in session.

Just before the court's announcement, Obama, en route back to Washington from a trip to Prague, had called a Friday afternoon Rose Garden statement, saying the subject would be a West Virginia mine accident.

The leading candidates to replace Stevens are Solicitor General Elena Kagan, 49, and federal appellate Judges Merrick Garland, 57, and Diane Wood, 59.

Stevens' departure will not change the court's conservative-liberal split because Obama is certain to name a liberal-leaning replacement. But the new justice is not likely to be able to match Stevens' ability to marshal narrow majorities in big cases.

Stevens was able to draw the support of the court's swing votes, now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Anthony Kennedy, to rein in or block some Bush administration policies, including the detention of suspected terrorists following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, its tilt toward protecting businesses from some lawsuits and its refusal to act against global warming.

But after the arrival of Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, President George W. Bush's appointees, Stevens more often was among the four liberal justices in dissent.

Stevens' recent dissent in a major case involving campaign finance laws showed both the eloquence of his writing and, in his stumbling reading of his opinion in the courtroom, signs that his age might at long last be affecting him, though he remains an active tennis player and swimmer.

Throughout his tenure, which began after President Gerald Ford nominated him in 1975, Stevens usually sided with the court's liberal bloc in the most contentious cases -- those involving abortion, criminal law, civil rights and church-state relations. He led the dissenters as well in the case of Bush v. Gore that sealed Bush's election in 2000.

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