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Obama says he'll move quickly to name Stevens' successor on court

April 09, 2010
  • Associate Justice John Paul Stevens sits for a new group photograph of the U.S. Supreme Court in September 2009. Stevens announced April 9 that he will retire at the end of the current term.
Associated Press,

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The retirement of John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court's leading liberal but a justice who also could find conservative allies, will set off an election-year political battle over President Barack Obama's second high court pick.

Stevens said Friday he will step down when the court finishes its work for the summer in late June or early July. He said he hopes his successor will be confirmed "well in advance of the commencement of the court's next term." Obama hailed Stevens as an "impartial guardian of the law" and promised to move quickly to nominate a replacement.

"We cannot replace Justice Stevens' experience or wisdom," Obama said at the White House after returning from a nuclear treaty-signing trip to Prague. "I'll seek someone in the coming weeks with similar qualities: 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. It will also be someone who, like Justice Stevens, knows that in democracy powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens."

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Stevens is leaving ample time for the White House to settle on a successor and for Senate Democrats, who control a 59-vote majority, to hold confirmation hearings and a vote before the court's next term begins in October. Republicans have not ruled out attempts to delay confirmation.

Stevens' announcement, which came 11 days before his 90th birthday, had been hinted at for months. It's presumed Obama will nominate another liberal, so the departure won't alter the court's philosophical makeup.

Leading candidates to replace Stevens include Solicitor General Elena Kagan, 49, and federal appellate judges Merrick Garland, 57, in Washington and Diane Wood, 59, in Chicago.

Others who might be considered include two Democratic governors, Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, and State Department legal adviser Harold Koh.

Stevens was nominated by President Gerald Ford in 1975, and throughout his tenure he usually sided with the court's liberal bloc in the most contentious cases -- those involving abortion, criminal law, civil rights and church-state relations. He led the dissenters as well in the case of Bush v. Gore that sealed President George W. Bush's election in 2000.

Stevens began signaling a possible retirement last summer when he hired just one of his usual complement of four law clerks for the next court term. He had acknowledged in several interviews that he was contemplating stepping down and would certainly do so during Obama's presidency.

Chief Justice John Roberts said in a written statement that Stevens "has enriched the lives of everyone at the Court through his intellect, independence, and warm grace."

Senate confirmations of Supreme Court justices have increasingly become political battles and this one will come amid the added heat of congressional election campaigns.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, appealed for civility. "I hope that senators on both sides of the aisle will make this process a thoughtful and civil discourse," Leahy said.

Looking toward those hearings, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, "Americans can expect Senate Republicans to make a sustained and vigorous case for judicial restraint and the fundamental importance of an evenhanded reading of the law."

In a telephone interview, Leahy said he had suggested to Obama that "the wisest move" would be to plan confirmation hearings on the same midsummer schedule used for the nominations of Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Democrats have an incentive to seat another justice before the November elections, in case Republican Senate victories make confirmation more difficult after that.

Leahy said Stevens gave him a heads-up on his retirement plans a few weeks ago. "I told him at the time I'd like to have him stay forever," Leahy said.

Stevens officially informed Obama in a one-paragraph letter addressed to "My dear Mr. President." It was delivered to the White House by court messenger at 10:30 a.m. EDT on a day when the court wasn't in session.

White House counsel Bob Bauer telephoned the news to Obama aboard Air Force One, as he returned from the trip to Prague.

Stevens' departure will not change the court's conservative-liberal split because Obama is certain to name a liberal-leaning replacement, as he did with his first nominee, Sotomayor. But the new justice is not likely to be able to match Stevens' ability to marshal narrow majorities in big cases.

Stevens was able to draw the support of the court's swing votes, now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Anthony Kennedy, to rein in or block some Bush administration policies, including the detention of suspected terrorists following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, its tilt toward protecting businesses from some lawsuits and its refusal to act against global warming.

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