By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Justice John Paul Stevens has hired only one clerk for the Supreme Court term that begins in October 2010, and in the tea-leaf-reading world of the court, that is being taken as a sign he is considering retirement.
Active justices generally have four clerks, and Stevens, 89, has hired that many for the court's new term, which begins next month. Stevens usually hires all of his clerks at the same time, and well in advance of the term in which they will work.
So his decision to make one hire thus far for the 2010-2011 term -- retired justices are entitled to one clerk -- seems significant. A court spokesman confirmed the hiring Wednesday after an inquiry from the Associated Press. Stevens's office declined to say more.
Stevens, who joined the court in 1975, will turn 90 in April. The second-oldest justice in its history, he has been regarded as the most likely to next leave the court, after David H. Souter stepped down in June.
Such a departure would give President Obama his second opportunity for a nomination to the court. His first pick, Sonia Sotomayor, was sworn in Aug. 8 to replace Souter.
Stevens is one of the court's sharpest questioners. He is also one of its shrewdest tacticians, and former clerks said he would be well aware that the change in his hiring pattern would be noticed.
"Obviously, it's possible that he's thinking about retiring," said Christopher L. Eisgruber, a former Stevens clerk who is now provost at Princeton University and who wrote a book about the Supreme Court nomination process, "The Next Justice."
Eisgruber said he had no firsthand knowledge about Stevens's plans, but he suggested that the justice could simply be keeping his options open and could hire more clerks if he decides to continue serving.
"He could pick up the phone at any moment and hire first-rate clerks," Eisgruber said. "He may well feel he doesn't know what he wants to do, and doesn't want to leave anybody in the lurch" by making the hires and then retiring.
Stevens is the leader of the court's liberal wing, so his departure would not alter the court's ideological split.
At a meeting last month of the Kiwanis Club of Arlington, Stevens declined to answer a question about whether he would retire during the current Obama administration.
The hiring of clerks is sometimes a sign of justices' plans, which are usually closely held. The court does not officially announce clerks until just before the term begins, but legal blogs follow their hiring. The Web site Above the Law, for instance, reported this summer that three justices had completed hiring for the term beginning in October 2010 and that another was halfway there.
It was Souter's delay in hiring clerks that led to speculation last spring that he would soon be stepping down.
Justices tend to stagger their departures if possible, so that the court remains at full strength during the nomination and confirmation process.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 76, battled pancreatic cancer in the past year, but she has said she is fully recovered and plans to remain on the court for several more years. She has hired four clerks for the October 2010 term.