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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.

Nan Aron of the liberal Alliance for Justice said Obama should pay no heed to Senate Republicans who warn him against a nominee as liberal as Stevens.

"Republicans will oppose any nominee sent up by the president," she said. "This is already a court that's tilted in favor of large corporations and special interests. Justice Stevens's replacement ought to be a person who understands how decisions affect the rights of everyday Americans."

But even in statements that contained tributes to Stevens's longevity and patriotism, Senate Republicans said they would be watchful for a nominee who made decisions based on his or her "own views and political agendas," in the words of Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"That approach is deeply unpopular with the American people, and any nominee who subscribes to it should expect bipartisan opposition," Sessions said.

The White House will begin the search with the list compiled last year when Justice David H. Souter retired. But selecting a Supreme Court nominee is a far more complicated task than simply naming the president's favorite. It is an "idiosyncratic" exercise, according to David Yalof, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut, that involves a president's political standing, the makeup of the opposition party in the Senate, the willingness for a fight and the status of the White House's agenda in Congress.

The president's choice can be symbolic as well, as Obama proved with Sotomayor. And the current justices, while ideologically divided, present similar backgrounds. All eight who will remain after Stevens are former appeals court judges, and all were educated at Ivy League law schools. None has run for political office. Stevens is the only justice with extensive service in the military, and he is the only Protestant among six Catholics and two Jews.

Kagan, who has never been a judge and has a limited number of writings on the law, and Garland, a former prosecutor who is seen as a moderate on the influential appeals court in Washington, are considered by some in the White House as the least likely to engender a battle in the Senate.

Wood, a former colleague of Obama's at the University of Chicago Law School, is a favorite of the left. But she is opposed by antiabortion activists because of her rulings on the issue, and her selection would ensure that abortion gains increased prominence in an election year.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is close to Obama, and the former Arizona governor would bring a politician's perspective to the court, something that has been missing. But her selection would also encourage a debate on the administration's national security and terrorism policies.

The president might also want to expand the demographic change he has started. The court has never had two African Americans serve simultaneously, nor three women.

Ford was not making an ideological choice when he picked Stevens, who had been appointed to the appeals court in Chicago by President Richard M. Nixon. With a trademark bow tie and a reputation built on investigating judicial corruption, Stevens is of another generation of Supreme Court nominees. He was approved unanimously only 19 days after his nomination.

The tributes that rained in after his announcement Friday from civil liberty groups, abortion-rights activists and feminists suggest that Republicans might not have gotten what they expected in his long tenure. Stevens insisted that the court changed more than he did, but his evolving positions on capital punishment and affirmative action show there was change on both sides.

But at least one Republican was not disappointed. Before he died, Ford wrote a letter in conjunction with a seminar examining Steven's legacy.

He said he was "prepared to allow history's judgment of my term in office to rest, (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination thirty years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens."

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