John Paul Stevens to Retire During Obama Presidency
John Paul Stevens announced yesterday that he will step down in time for President Obama to choose his successor.
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens says he “will surely” retire while President Barack Obama is still in office, giving the president the opportunity to maintain the high court’s ideological balance. Stevens said in newspaper interviews on the Web Saturday that he will decide soon on the timing of his retirement, whether it will be this year or next. Stevens, the leader of the court’s liberals, turns 90 this month and is the oldest justice.
His departure would give Obama his second nomination to the court, enabling him to ensure there would continue to be at least four liberal-leaning justices. The high court is often split 5 to 4 on major cases, with the vote of moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy often deciding which side prevails.
“I will surely do it while he’s still president,” Stevens told The Washington Post. But Stevens, who was named to the court by Republican President Gerald R. Ford in 1975, says he still loves the job, and says he continues to write the first draft of his own opinions. Stevens says if it ever gets to point where he stopped doing that, it would be a sign he wasn’t up to the job anymore.
“I do have to fish or cut bait, just for my own personal peace of mind and also in fairness to the process,” Stevens told The New York Times. “The president and the Senate need plenty of time to fill a vacancy.”
It has been common practice in recent years for Justices to do their best to time their departures according to which party controls the White House. I don’t know, however, that a sitting Justice has ever brazenly admitted to the fact. Certainly, it belies the notion — always a fiction — that the Supreme Court is apolitical.
What’s interesting is how many recent retirements of Justices appointed by Republican presidents have come during Democratic administrations. The most recent retiree, David Souter, was nominated by George H.W. Bush in 1990 but chose to wait out George H.W. Bush and retire in the first months of the Obama presidency. Stevens was appointed by Gerald Ford. Lewis Powell, a Nixon appointee, retired during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Ditto Harry Blackmun. It’s been a long time since a Justice appointed by a Democrat voluntarily (i.e., for reasons other than rapidly declining health) during a Republican presidency.