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.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
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.

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.

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.

Age is considered an important criterion because appointments to the Supreme Court are for life. Younger appointees suggest greater influence on the law over a longer period of time – at least in theory.

All recent presidents have sought potential nominees in their 40s and 50s. Obama did so as well when he named New York appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor, 55, to replace retiring Justice David Souter last year.

There was speculation that Justice Stevens might wait another year before retiring. It is clear from his demeanor on the bench that the Chicago native enjoyed his work. It is also clear that Stevens – and others – never viewed his age as a limiting factor in his ability to perform his role as a justice.

Always polite and deferential

On the bench, Justice Stevens is always polite and deferential. Unlike his more aggressive colleagues who sometimes interrupt and grill legal counsel during oral argument, Stevens frequently begins his questions with a gentle request for information. He sometimes prefaces his inquiry with the phrase: “May I ask….”

When it comes time to write an opinion, however, Stevens is all business. He does not hesitate to express his concern about decisions he considers ill-advised or just plain wrong. One such dissent came in the 2000 decision Bush v. Gore.

“Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear,” Stevens wrote in his seven-page dissent. “It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

He added: “I respectfully dissent.”

A Chicago native who served in World War II

John Paul Stevens was born in Chicago, the youngest of four sons. His father was in the insurance business and owned the Stevens Hotel, which became the Chicago Hilton. He graduated from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University Law School.

He enlisted in the US Navy during World War II and earned a Bronze Star working in a unit assigned to break Japanese codes.

Stevens was a law clerk in 1947-48 to Justice Wiley Rutledge.

In private practice in Chicago, Stevens specialized in antitrust law and he became a recognized expert. He taught antitrust law at both Northwestern and the University of Chicago law schools.

He was appointed by President Nixon in 1970 to a seat on the Chicago-based Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals. Five years later, President Ford named him to replace the retiring Justice William O. Douglas.

Justice Stevens is a bit unusual among high-powered personalities in Washington. He preferred a low profile. He and his second wife, Maryann, live much of the time in a beachfront condo in Fort Lauderdale. He commutes from Florida to his work in Washington at the high court.

In Florida, his activities include golf, tennis, swimming, and bridge.

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