Justice Stevens to retire 'in the best interests' of the Supreme Court

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced Friday he will retire when the court wraps up its work for the summer break.

The retirement gives President Barack Obama the chance to appoint a second justice to the court in two years, but could set off a bruising confirmation battle with Senate Republicans.

The Stevens retirement was not a surprise. The liberal justice turns 90 this month and said in an interview published less than a week ago that he would “surely” retire while Obama was still in the White House.

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“Having concluded that it would be in the best interests of the Court to have my successor appointed and confirmed well in advance of the commencement of the Court's next term, I shall retire from regular active service as an Associate Justice, under the provisions of 28 U.S.C. 371 (b), effective the next day after the Court rises for the summer recess this year,” Stevens wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama.

Confirming a successor to Stevens is expected to be more difficult for Obama than last year’s confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor. If will follow a partisan fight over healthcare, and will take place as the Senate has one eye on this fall’s elections.

Republican senators on Friday warned they will fight Obama if he nominates an “activist” justice.

“Every President has an obligation to nominate Judges who understand and are committed to their proper role in our system of government,” Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMeet Washington's most ineffective senator: Joe Manchin Lobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage MORE (Utah), the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

“As I have said for many years, someone who would be an activist judge, who would substitute their own views for what the law requires, is not qualified to serve on the federal bench.”

Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Judiciary’s chairman, urged both sides to engage in a “thoughtful and civil discourse” during the process to replace Stevens.

“I expect President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaClyburn predicts Supreme Court contender J. Michelle Childs would get GOP votes Progressives see Breyer retirement as cold comfort The names to know as Biden mulls Breyer's replacement MORE to continue his practice of consulting with members on both sides of the aisle as he considers this important nomination,” Leahy said. “The decisions of the Supreme Court are often made by only five individuals, but they impact the daily lives of each and every American. All senators should strive to fulfill their constitutional duty of advise and consent, and give fair and thorough consideration to Justice Stevens’ successor.”

Initial speculation about potential nominees focused on two female candidates: Federal Appellate Judge Diane Wood and U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan. Obama interviewed and considered both before settling on Sotomayor as the replacement for Justice David Souter last year.

Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, said Stevens "leaves large shoes to fill.

“The President now has an opportunity to name a worthy successor who will stand up for equal justice for all, not just the wealthy or powerful," Aron said.

Colin Hanna of the conservative group Let Freedom Ring, which will be coordinating with the Tea Party movement and other right-wing groups on Republican strategy in the nomination fight, suggested Kagan could win approval.

He said Republicans expect Obama to replace Stevens with an equally liberal justice, and that his group would only call for a Republican filibuster if a particular nominee
represents a significant departure from the expected norm.

Kagan, however, may not be liberal enough for Obama’s base, said Hanna, who noted her support for the president’s broad authority to detain enemy combatants.

Wood’s strong views on abortion rights, however, could be enough to prompt calls for a filibuster should she be nominated, Hanna said.

Stevens was appointed to the court in 1975 by Republican President Gerald Ford. He has served under seven presidents and three chief justices, and emerged as the court's liberal leader.

His landmark votes include reinstating the death penalty in 1976 and penning a scathing dissent in the 2000 Bush v. Gore recount case.

“Associate Justice John Paul Stevens has earned the gratitude and admiration of the American people for his nearly 40 years of distinguished service to the Judiciary, including more than 34 years on the Supreme Court,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a Friday statement. “He has enriched the lives of everyone at the Court through his intellect, independence, and warm grace. We have all been blessed to have John as our colleague and his wife Maryan as our friend.”

The White House was notified of Stevens's decision to retire by his letter delivered at 10:30 a.m. Friday morning. The official said White House general counsel Bob Bauer talked to Obama, who was flying home from Prague aboard Air Force One, at about 10:45 a.m. and informed him of the letter.

Amanda Leiter, who clerked for Stevens in 2003 and 2004, described Stevens as a generous boss with an unbelievable memory.

“Sometimes we would be so steeped in an issue, and think we were up to speed, and then he’d say, ‘What about what we said about this in 1982?’ And then we’d be back to the drawing board. He also had a deep understanding of human nature and he really cared about the people in the cases before him.

”Leiter said Stevens didn’t reminisce often about past cases, although the Court’s Bush v. Gore decision “upset him a lot — which you can tell from his opinion.”

Sam Youngman, Bridget Johnson and Tony Romm contributed to this post

This post was updated at 12 p.m., 1:02 p.m. and 1:48 p.m.