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."
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."
But Leahy hinted at the possibility of controversy that could arise over justice nomination. "In exercising their important roles in the confirmation of the next Supreme Court Justice, I hope that all Senators will take this opportunity to unify around the shared constitutional values that will define Justice Souter's legacy on the Court," he said.
Souter's colleagues on the bench have been trying to talk him out of retiring, according to a source close to the court.
The vacancy gives Obama his first chance to begin reshaping the court but would not likely change the dynamic on a bench that is split fairly evenly between the liberal and conservative blocs, with moderate conservative Justice Anthony M. Kennedy often holding the pivotal role.
Although Obama's choice would probably be far different from the 69-year-old intellectual bachelor from New Hampshire, the replacement will almost surely have a similar ideological outlook. Most court observers also believe Obama would be likely to choose a woman as his first appointment, since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the lone female among the nine justices.
Most often mentioned as possibilities are two appeals judges, Sonia Sotomayor of New York and Diane P. Wood of Chicago, along with Obama's new solicitor general, Elena Kagan. Vice President Biden has been charged with drawing up a list of possible nominees, according to the source close to the court.
After Obama's victory, the question quickly became who would be the first to leave the court, and all speculation revolved around the three longest-serving liberals. But Justice John Paul Stevens, 89, the longest-serving justice on the current court, gave no indication he was ready to leave.
Nor did Ginsburg, 76. Even after her pancreatic cancer was diagnosed this winter, she made clear her intentions to serve on the court until well into her 80s. The cancer was detected extremely early and successfully removed, she said, and she has undergone what she describes as a precautionary round of chemotherapy.
Souter was considered by some to be the most likely, because of his well-known disdain for the ways of Washington. The speculation has been fueled in recent weeks because Souter had not hired clerks for the court's next term, but was tempered by the fact that Souter traditionally is the last justice to hire for the coming term.
National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg was the first to report last night Souter's plans to retire, followed by NBC and other news organizations.
According to account today, the administration too was preparing for such an announcement from one of the justices. A month before he was sworn into office, Obama provided his senior staff with the names of several individuals whom he would consider to fill a potential Supreme Court vacancy.
A White House official said today that the General Counsel's office began "reviewing the backgrounds of possible nominees and evaluating their records" within days of the inauguration.
"The goal of that effort was to be ready if a Justice stepped down at the end of this court's term," the official said. The term ends next month.
The selection process began in November when leaders of the transition team formed a working group to focus on judicial selection, specifically to begin identifying candidates to fill a number of vacancies on the federal bench and future Supreme Court nominees.
In December, during meetings in Chicago and Washington, Obama suggested names of people he would seriously consider for a vacant Supreme Court post, the administration official said. The official would say only that the candidates come from "diverse backgrounds, work, and life experiences."
In preparation for a vacancy, Obama's senior staff met yesterday to begin organizing a formal selection process, although the official said the meeting was held before Souter's retirement plans were first reported.
When the court is not in session, Souter is back home in Weare, a small town west of Concord where he has a modest 200-year-old farmhouse on eight acres.
A friend who ran into him last summer in Concord said he was surprised by just how strongly Souter spoke about wanting to leave Washington. "He said, 'If Obama wins, I'll be the first one to retire,' " said the friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Souter had not yet announced a retirement.
The court is meeting in private conference today, and its next public meeting is Monday. Souter is scheduled to be a featured speaker next week in Philadelphia at the annual conference of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Souter, who has been on the court since October 1990, was nominated by President George H.W. Bush on July 25, 1990, to a seat vacated by William J. Brennan Jr. He was confirmed by the Senate on Oct. 2, 1990.
Another friend of Souter's, Concord lawyer Wilbur "Bill" Glahn, said last night he was not surprised by the reports of retirement. Glahn, who has known Souter for 35 years after working under him in the New Hampshire attorney general's office, said he had seen Souter several times in early April. He would not divulge the exact nature of their talks about Souter's plans but said it was clear for years what direction Souter was heading.
"I certainly have known it was something he had thought about for years," Glahn said.
Glahn said it was hard to know just what Souter's thinking was on the timing of a retirement. "Anyone's timing in this situation is their timing," he said. Glahn noted that Souter was such a committed New Hampshire-ite that he had climbed all 47 of the 4,000-foot peaks in the White Mountains.
Souter was little known when nominated, with a slight record of legal writings and a lack of controversial stands that was seen as an asset. Bush's chief of staff John E. Sununu, also from New Hampshire, called him a "home run for conservatives."
Staff writers Alec MacGillis and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.