Justice John Paul Stevens announces his retirement from Supreme Court

The Washington Post's Robert Barnes talks about Justice John Paul Stevens's retirement, its implications for the Supreme Court and who might replace him.
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

Justice John Paul Stevens announced Friday that he will retire this summer, and President Obama said he will move quickly to replace the Supreme Court's liberal leader and longest-serving member with someone who shares the belief that "powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens."

Stevens, who will turn 90 on April 20, said in a letter addressed to "My dear Mr. President" that he will leave the court when the current term concludes at the end of June.

A Republican named to the court in 1975 by President Gerald R. Ford, Stevens leaves a legacy of defending abortion rights, expanding protection for gays, restricting the availability of the death penalty and ensuring a robust role for judges in interpreting the nation's laws and curbing executive power.

He probably leaves with a sense of frustration as well: The court's conservative wing has become increasingly dominant under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The success Stevens enjoyed in putting together slim majorities for liberal outcomes made way for stinging dissents in which he has accused the current court of ignoring years of precedent.

Appearing in the White House Rose Garden shortly after his return from a trip to Europe, Obama described Stevens as a "brilliant, non-ideological, pragmatic" justice who "applied the Constitution and the laws of the land with fidelity and restraint."

Obama said he hoped the Senate would make sure Stevens's successor is in place for the beginning of the court's new term in October. The president listed the qualities he will look for in a nominee: "an independent mind, a record of excellence and integrity, a fierce dedication to the rule of law and a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people."

Stevens has made clear for months that he was thinking of retiring, and the White House has been preparing for another opening.

Aides and Democrats close to the process named three people as probable front-runners for the job: Solicitor General Elena Kagan, whom Obama appointed as the first woman to hold the post; Judge Diane P. Wood of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago and Judge Merrick B. Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

It will be Obama's second chance to leave a mark on the court; because of justices' lifetime tenure, the decision can be one of a president's most lasting legacies. Last summer, Obama made history by nominating the court's first Latina member, Sonia Sotomayor, an appellate judge from New York.

But even with another choice, Obama will not shift the court's ideological balance. The court has four justices, including Stevens, who consistently are on the left and four, including Roberts, consistently on the right. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy often provides the deciding vote in close cases, and more often sides with conservatives.

But Stevens's departure will change the inner workings of the court. As the senior justice, he speaks second, after Roberts, in the private conferences in which the court makes its decisions. If he, instead of the chief justice, is in the majority, Stevens decides who will write the court's opinion. Legal experts say that at times he turned over an opinion to Kennedy, or former justice Sandra Day O'Connor, to secure five votes for limiting the death penalty, for instance, or defending affirmative action.

For that reason, the loss of Stevens will be felt even if he is replaced with a justice who shares his views. It is unlikely in the near future that any of the court's conservative justices would willingly step down.

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