Supreme Court Justice Stevens Retiring At 90

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's oldest member, announced his retirement Friday morning. He plans to step down when the court finishes its work in June or July, providing an opening for President Obama to appoint his second Supreme Court Justice in as many years. Stevens' announcement, which had been hinted at for months, comes 11 days before his 90th birthday.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens this morning has announced he is retiring. He is the court's oldest member and he plans to step down when the court finishes its work this summer. That means President Obama will appoint his second Supreme Court justice.

NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us now to talk about all of this. Good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: How did Justice Stevens deliver the news that he's leaving the court?

SHAPIRO: He sent a one-paragraph letter to President Obama. It's short enough that I can read you the text. He wrote: Having concluded that it would be in the best interest of the court to have my successor appointed and confirmed well in advance of the commencement of next - of the court's next term, I shall retire effective the next day after the court rises for the summer recess this year.

We got a statement shortly thereafter from Chief Justice John Roberts, who said: Justice John Paul Stevens has enriched the lives of everyone at the court through his intellect, independence and warm grace.

Just before the announcement came through, the White House, as President Obama was flying back from Prague, said the president would have a Rose Garden event this afternoon. At the time they said it was to discuss the West Virgin mine tragedy, but of course we now know it will be to discuss the replacement of a Supreme Court justice.

MONTAGNE: Now, of course this was not expected. And in fact, there's been rather a lot of talk just in the last few days about his retirement.

SHAPIRO: Not unexpected, that's right.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, unexpected.

SHAPIRO: Justice John Paul Stevens has done several interviews where he has said he will be making a decision shortly about his retirement. A few months ago he chose not to hire the full complement of four clerks for the next term, which started a lot of speculation. And the fact is, in just over a week he turns 90 years old. Justice Stevens is very healthy, smart, active - he plays tennis every morning - but he's 90. And it was widely believed that he did not want a Republican president appointing his successor, even though he himself was appointed by a Republican, President Ford, in 1975.

Justice Stevens always claimed that he didn't move to the left - the rest of the court moved to the right, he said. But over the years he really became sort of the leader of the court's liberal wing, which moved into a minority over the years that Stevens was on the court.

MONTAGNE: And how far along, given that this was expected, is the White House in vetting possible replacements for Justice Stevens?

SHAPIRO: They have done a lot of work on this front, and in fact the work started when they were vetting replacements for Justice David Souter, who retired a year ago and was replaced by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Two of the people who they interviewed then are considered to be on the shortlist now. Those are Judge Diane Wood, who is an Appeals Court judge, and Elena Kagan, who is the solicitor general for the Obama administration, the administration's chief advocate for the Supreme Court.

The third person generally considered to be on that shortlist is Judge Merrick Garland of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. And the question of who the White House will choose many believe depends on how much of a fight the White House wants to have over the confirmation at this point, whether the White House wants to listen to liberal advocates who say we really need a strong liberal voice to counter the voice of, for example, Justice Scalia on the conservative side, or whether the White House just wants somebody who is a consensus nominee and can get easily confirmed.

MONTAGNE: Well, about that - will President Obama have a hard time getting his nominee, whomever that nominee might be, confirmed?

SHAPIRO: Well, the Democrats basically have 59 votes in the Senate right now, which is not a filibuster-proof majority, but there is no recent history of senators filibustering a Supreme Court nominee. Now, it's not to say that they won't filibuster a Supreme Court nominee. Confirming judges and justices has become more and more difficult in recent years.

But the Democrats and the White House are basically preparing to lose seats in the next election, in 2010. And so if they choose to have a fight, I think they are feeling it would be better to have that fight now than a year or two years from now when the Democrats might have even a smaller majority.

MONTAGNE: But is there any chance that Justice Stevens' retirement, given that it's President Obama making, you know, selecting his replacement, will actually change the make-up of the court?

SHAPIRO: Realistically, no. I mean we're essentially looking at a 5-4 split in most of the most controversial decisions that this court decides. The five tends to be a conservative majority. Given that Stevens is generally in the liberal wing and will be replaced presumably by somebody with more liberal inclinations, that's not likely to change.

MONTAGNE: Ari, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ari Shapiro on the retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

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