NPR logo Justice Stevens' Minimal Clerk Hiring Spurs Retirement Speculation


Justice Stevens' Minimal Clerk Hiring Spurs Retirement Speculation

A lot of speculation in Supreme Court watching circles about whether Associate Justice John Paul Stevens' hiring of just one clerk to date means he's preparing to step down from the court.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Sonia Sotomayor at an Aug. 12, 2009 White House reception in her honor. Alex Brandon/AP Photo hide caption

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Alex Brandon/AP Photo

Stevens. 89, is the second oldest justice to serve on the court. Only Oliver Wendell Holmes, who served until he was 90, was older.

Stevens is a reliable member of the liberal wing on a court that has trended conservative over a number of years, with the court tending towards 5-4 decisions in many cases that split the nation ideologically. A Chicagoan, Stevens joined the court in 1975.

The Associated Press' Mark Sherman reports that the speculation that Stevens could be stepping down soon arises from his having hired only one clerk, according to court watchers, at a time by which he should've hired four.

NPR's SCOTUS expert, Nina Totenberg, differs with the AP, saying that Stevens normally hires three, not four, clerks. Since the 1970s, the justices have been authorized to have four clerk positions but Stevens typically uses one of those positions to hire someone who serves as more of an administrator.

Stevens is known as being remarkably fit and active for someone his age which is brought up every year when the speculation starts up that he might resign.

Still, since justices are traditionally coy about their plans, people look for clues and his failure to hire more than one clerk at this point is about as good as any.

If Stevens were to retire soon, it would give President Barack Obama another Supreme Court appointment following his successful nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor as the court's first Hispanic.

But assuming he appointed someone just as liberal as Stevens, the president theoretically wouldn't change where the court winds up. He would need one of the conservatives to retire for that. And they seem in no mood to oblige him.