By Sam Baker - 04/23/13 09:00 AM EDT
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen as the most likely Supreme Court justice to retire before the end of President Obama’s term.
Ginsburg has explicitly said she doesn’t plan to step aside this year. And she’s still active during the court’s oral arguments.
But the 80-year-old justice is the oldest on the court and has been treated for pancreatic cancer.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in an interview with The New York Times “hinted a Supreme Court fight could come soon,” the paper reported Friday. Leahy’s comments were notable because he’s learned of previous Supreme Court vacancies in advance.
Court observers already assumed Ginsburg would be the next justice to retire, and took Leahy’s “hint” as a reference to her departure.
Tom Goldstein, a Supreme Court attorney and the publisher of the widely respected SCOTUSBlog, has interpreted her statements to mean Ginsburg likely plans to step aside in the third year of Obama’s second term — 2015.
“She’s completely at the top of her game,” he said in an interview. “She’s really underestimated.”
None of the other justices are expected to leave during Obama’s presidency, barring major health problems or death.
Justice Stephen Breyer, at 74, is younger than Ginsburg and seems to be “having the time of his life,” said Lucas Powe, a Supreme Court historian at the University of Texas law school.
Goldstein said it’s “extremely unlikely” Breyer and Ginsburg would both leave during Obama’s presidency.
The court’s other two liberals, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, were both appointed by Obama.
None of the court’s conservatives would likely choose to let Obama pick their successors. Justice Antonin Scalia is the oldest conservative, at 77, and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s traditional swing vote, is 76 and also appears healthy. And though Kennedy has sided with the court’s liberals on issues like gay rights, he is conservative on many issues and was appointed by a Republican president.
Some liberals wanted Ginsburg and Breyer to retire before the 2012 election, in case Obama lost. And some are still worried about Ginsburg staying on past 2014, when Republicans could make gains in the Senate.
“I’d like her to retire today, but I hope she will retire next year,” Powe said.
The justices are mindful of the president who would replace them, but they make their own determinations about how long they think they can keep doing the job, Goldstein said.
“They all view it as their responsibility; it’s not just a day job,” he said. “They feel like they should be doing it as long as possible, within reason.”