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Obama Announces Justice Souter Is Retiring

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President Barack Obama interrupted his press secretary's briefing Friday to announce that he had just gotten off the phone with Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who had called to announce his retirement. Video by AP

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009; 6:37 PM

President Obama announced this afternoon that Justice David H. Souter, the Republican-appointed New England jurist who has become a reliable member of the liberal bloc on the Supreme Court, is retiring and said he will nominate a replacement "who shares my respect for constitutional values on which this nation was founded."

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Making a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room at about 3 p.m. -- in the middle of the briefing by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs -- Obama said he had just finished a phone call with the justice. He praised Souter's contributions to the court.

"He never sought to promote a political agenda and he consistently defied labels," Obama said, "and rejected absolutes, focusing instead on just one task: reaching a just result in the case that was before him. . . . I am incredibly grateful for his dedicated service."

Shortly after the president spoke, court officials released a letter from Souter confirming his decision, which had leaked out last night.

Obama, saying that finding a court replacement is "among my most serious responsibilities," predicted a new justice would be on the court when its next term begins in October. He said he would consult with Democrats and Republicans about his choice. Souter would be likely to stay on until a replacement could be confirmed.

Obama said he would seek a nominee with a "sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives."

He said his nominee would be one who is "dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role."

The other justices on the court late this afternoon released statements of regret and understanding of Souter's desire to move back home.

"His desire to return to his native New Hampshire is understandable," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, "but he will be greatly missed in our deliberations."

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's statement was among the most emotional. "The two months remaining in this term now become all the more precious to us, for we know our splendid colleague . . . will soon leave here for the home and the State to which he longs to return," Kennedy wrote. "In our free moments David was one of the best raconteurs, one of the most adept and amusing storytellers, I have ever encountered. In our conferences and deliberations all of us knew we had the guidance of a powerful intellect and a fine, dedicated jurist. The Nation should be grateful always for his integrity and absolute probity, and for his lasting contributions to our law and to the dignity of this Court."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee that will handle the nomination of a new justice, also praised Souter today.

"I have admired his commitment to justice, his admiration for the law, and his understanding of the impact of the Court's decisions on the daily lives of ordinary Americans," Leahy said in an e-mailed statement. "Throughout his career, he has been committed to the law and not to ideology. New Englanders treasure our strong sense of independence, and Justice Souter fits the independent Yankee mold. He has a first-rate legal mind."


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