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Stevens retirement gives Obama second Supreme Court pick

John Paul Stevens, the longest serving Supreme Court justice, plans to leave the bench in June. The Stevens retirement allows President Obama to name a second high court justice, opening the way for a likely confirmation battle.

By Staff writer / April 9, 2010

Justice John Paul Stevens is the Supreme Court’s longest-serving justice and its oldest. The Stevens retirement, announced Friday, opens the way for President Obama to make his second nomination of a justice to America’s highest court.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File

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Justice John Paul Stevens, who has served on the US Supreme Court since 1975, announced on Friday that he will be leaving the court at the end of the current term in June.

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The announcement opens the way for President Obama to make his second nomination of a justice to America’s highest court. It also sets the stage for what could become a highly contentious confirmation battle this summer over Justice Stevens’ replacement.

Stevens is both the court’s longest-serving justice and its oldest. He will celebrate his 90th birthday later this month.

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The official announcement came in a letter Stevens sent to the White House Friday morning.

Stevens' retirement no surprise

The retirement is not a surprise. Stevens had said in recent interviews that he would decide soon whether to leave the court this summer or next summer. He said he would do so to allow Mr. Obama the opportunity to nominate his successor.

Stevens’ announcement drew messages of praise from all quarters in Washington – Democrats and Republicans, legal scholars, and advocacy groups.

Chief Justice John Roberts said Stevens had “enriched the lives of everyone on the court through his intellect, independence, and warm grace.”

Doug Kendall, of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, said Stevens will be remembered as a “towering figure in Supreme Court history.”

“In the last decade he has gone toe-to-toe with Justice Antonin Scalia and the court’s conservatives over the meaning of our nation’s charter, winning more battles than he lost,” Mr. Kendall said.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell praised Stevens for his lifelong commitment to public service.

“Even if Justice Stevens’ liberalism has led to many decisions I oppose, I respect his devotion to the institution and the gentlemanly manner in which he always carried out his work,” Senator McConnell said.

Leader of the court's liberal wing

Stevens is viewed as the leader of the liberal wing of the high court. Because Obama is expected to nominate a liberal justice to the post, the replacement is not likely to dramatically shift the conservative-liberal balance of power on the court.

But legal analysts say Stevens’ retirement may be felt in more subtle ways with the loss of his institutional acumen and his ability to influence colleagues and occasionally pull in the vote of conservative-moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy to the liberal side on big, hot-button cases like gay rights and the death penalty.

The leading candidates for an Obama nomination are Solicitor General Elena Kagan, 49, Chicago appeals court judge Diane Wood, 59, and Washington, D.C., appeals court judge Merrick Garland, 57.

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