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Souter retirement gives Obama early Supreme Court pick

But the court's balance of power may not change much, as Justice Souter, a conservative choice, consistently voted liberal.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2009

US Supreme Court Justice David Souter smiles at a dedication ceremony in New Hampshire in this July 2008 file photo. The frontrunner to fill his spot is believed to be Elena Kagan, the former dean of Harvard Law School.

Jim Cole/AP


The retirement of US Supreme Court Justice David Souter, expected in late June, will not significantly alter the balance of power between liberal and conservative wings on the high court. But that does not mean it won't be significant.

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In considering his first nomination to the court, President Obama is likely to focus on three factors – gender, youth, and liberal intellectual heft.

The frontrunner for the nomination is believed to be Elena Kagan, 49, the former dean of Harvard Law School who was confirmed as the nation's first female solicitor general on March 19. The Senate vote was 61 to 31.

Also mentioned as potential candidates are Diane Wood, 58, and Sonia Sotomayor, 54, both federal appeals court judges.

Speculation about Mr. Souter's possible retirement had increased as the court's current term moved deeper into the spring. He had not yet hired law clerks for the 2009-2010 term. And the justice had made no secret of his preference for the wooded bliss of New Hampshire over the bustle and political heat of Washington.

Souter long ago suggested to friends that he intended to leave the court while still in his 60s. Sept. 17 will mark his 70th birthday.

A "stealth candidate"

David Hackett Souter was born in Melrose, Mass. He is a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He served in New Hampshire state government as attorney general and was appointed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court in 1983.

Seven years later, he became a federal appeals court judge on the First US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. He served in the job for two months before President George H.W. Bush nominated him to fill the US Supreme Court seat left vacant by Justice William Brennan's sudden retirement.

Souter joined the high court on Oct. 9, 1990.

He will be remembered by many conservatives as a high court "stealth candidate" that backfired.

With abortion as a hot political issue, the first Bush administration had sought to avoid a replay of the bitter confirmation hearings surrounding President Reagan's unsuccessful nomination of Robert Bork to the high court. Instead of selecting nominees with well-established public positions on controversial issues, vetting officials at the first Bush White House sought individuals whom they perceived as reliable conservatives but who had no blatant paper trail proving it.

Souter had the backing of New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman and Bush chief of staff and former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu.