Associated Press Writer
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens retiring
MARK SHERMAN,Associated Press Writer
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 U.S. high court opening to fill.
Stevens said Friday he will step down when the court finishes its work 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."
His announcement had been hinted at for months. It comes 11 days before his 90th birthday.
Stevens' retirement will not change the ideological makeup of America's top court, but it will likely provide some young blood to the court's liberal wing. The court became more conservative as a result of two justices selected by President George W. Bush.
The nominations are especially important because justices serve until they retire or die. That means Obama's choice could shape the court for decades, long after he leaves office.
Obama's nominee must be confirmed by Democratic-led Senate. Supreme Court nomination hearings often lead to contentious political battles over abortion and other divisive issues.
The debate over Obama's nominee could be especially fierce, given the intense partisanship in the United States. Obama recently prevailed in a bitter battle over his health care overhaul, and Republicans are vying to reclaim both chambers of Congress in the November elections.
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." The court released the letter along with the chief justice's statement on a day when the court was not even in session.
The timing of Stevens' announcement leaves ample time for the White House to settle on a successor and Senate Democrats, who control 59 votes in the 100-member chamber, to conduct confirmation hearings and a vote. Republicans have not ruled out an attempt to delay confirmation.
The leading candidates to replace Stevens are Solicitor General Elena Kagan, 49, and federal appellate Judges Merrick Garland, 57, and Diane Wood, 59.
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, terror ttacks, 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, 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 Republican 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 as president in 2000.
He is the court's last World War II veteran and that experience sometimes finds its way into his writings, recently in a reference to Tokyo Rose, the English-speaking Japanese radio announcer who addressed U.S. soldiers in the Pacific.
Stevens had a reputation as a bright and independent federal appeals court judge when Ford nominated him to the Supreme Court.
His friendly manner of questioning lawyers who appeared before the court could not hide Stevens' keen mind. His questions often zero in on the most telling weaknesses of a lawyer's argument and the case's practical effect on everyday people.
A pleasant, unassuming man, Stevens has been a prolific and lucid writer. For many years, he wrote more opinions each court term than any other justice.
Most justices let their law clerks write the first drafts of opinions, but Stevens has used his clerks as editors.
He would the first draft and submit it to the clerks for comment. "That's when the real fun begins," Stevens once told a visitor. "The give and take can get pretty fierce."
As a result, his opinions have reflected his personal writing style — a conversational one that contrasted sharply with the dry, dull efforts of some other justices.
He said recently that one sign that it would be time to retire would be an inability to churn out those first drafts. But he insisted in recent days that he was still writing them.