Justice Stevens Retirement Signals

jon-paul-stevensToward the end of every Supreme Court term, there’s speculation about which Justices might retire.   Given his age and his relatively liberal proclivities, John Paul Stevens has naturally been at the top of the list.   A while back, it was noted that he’d only hired one clerk for the upcoming session.   Now, CBS’ Jan Crawford is seeing clues in his speech patterns.

Stevens is unpredictable, and he’s seemed as sharp as ever from the bench, so I thought maybe, just maybe, he would pull something out of his sleeve at the last minute and stick around for awhile.

Until today.

Stevens spent a good 20 minutes this morning reading a summary of his scathing dissent in the campaign finance case. And he showed his age.

The language in his written dissent was forceful. But it was striking to see him appear to stumble over words as he read it, to mispronounce words like “corruption” and “allegation,” to seem to lose his place in his summary, to often hit the microphone with his hand or his papers.

Maybe it was just a bad day, and Lord knows we’ve all had those. And certainly it was the longest summary from the bench in some time. But it was so different from the John Paul Stevens we’ve come to know. He’s the maverick justice who asks pointed questions from the bench and cleverly makes his points, sometimes with sly dry humor.

If his mind is still sharp — and yesterday’s written dissenting opinion would lead me to believe it is — and he’s enjoying the job, having a bit more difficulty giving long orations isn’t much of a stumbling block.  He’s a Supreme Court Justice, not a news anchor.

One presumes he’ll retire in the next year or two, since he’s getting up there in age and would likely prefer Obama, rather than a potential Republican successor, to appoint his replacement.  But he’ll let us know.  It’s a bit unseemly to hover over him like a vulture.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Supreme Court, US Politics, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. just me says:

    I am willing to bet he retires. And now is a good time, if he would rather Obama with a definite democratic controlled congress to do the picking. Who knows what is going to happen in this years election cycle?

  2. steve says:

    I would recommend reading this piece from Volokh Conspiracy. The Judges arent writing their own opinions that much anymore. I think we have judges who linger way too long. There is a lot of pressure to name judges who are young and correctly aligned on ideology rather than on competence or intelligence.


  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    If he announced at the end of the court term, it would be an interesting sidelight to the election. According to polls, if the election were to ne held to day the democratic majority would be reduced to 52 (it would have been 51 before Dodd stepped aside). So while a liberal judge being replaced by a liberal president and confirmed by a liberal senate would usually be no big deal, in an election year it becomes a potential lightening rod.
    I’m not sure where the lightening would strike. The left has alienated the middle by trying to put to much under the control of Washington (see sen. Brown). But I suspect that same middle would not feel to comfortable with a solidly conservative supreme court (not that would happen given Obama as the first step of the process).
    If he does retire and his replacement is not confirmed before the next election, I suspect that his successor wouldn’t be voted on until the next senate. The outcome likely wouldn’t change. The only possible rejection of Obama’s choice would be someone like the lawyer convicted of aiding terrorist in jail (her name escapes me). Short of that, no matter what the timing Obama will name and the senate confirm a liberal judge.

  4. Crust says:

    Nicely put

  5. Phil Smith says:

    Jan Crawford, not Joan. Unless the Blue Oyster Cult song came true. And now I’ve had ‘ETI’ going through my head all day. I’ve found the awful truth, Balthazar!