The Battle Over Justice Stevens' Replacement Begins

The fight has already begun over confirmation hearings to replace Justice John Paul Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court. The oldest serving justice announced Friday morning that he will retire this summer. Within hours, Republicans and Democrats began staking out positions on his replacement. President Obama said he will move quickly to name a successor.

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The fight has already begun over confirmation hearings to replace Justice John Paul Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court. The oldest serving justice announced yesterday morning that he will retire this summer. Within hours, Republicans and Democrats began staking out positions in his replacement. President Obama said he will move quickly to name a successor.

NPRs Ari Shapiro reports from the White House.

ARI SHAPIRO: President Obama was flying home from Prague when the news broke, and minutes after Marine One landed on the White House lawn, the president spoke to reporters in the Rose Garden.

President BARACK OBAMA: I view the process of selecting a Supreme Court nominee as among my most serious responsibilities as president. And while we cannot replace Justice Stevens' experience or wisdom, I will seek someone in the coming weeks with similar qualities.

SHAPIRO: If Congress were in session this week, the announcement would have immediately brought lawmakers flocking to the microphones. But congressmen are in their home districts, farther away from television cameras and studios. So, the moment Justice Stevens told the White House of his plans to step down, Washington was flooded with dueling press releases.

The Senate Judiciary Committee's top Republican, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, attacked, quote, the flawed notion that judges should allow personal feelings, political opinions and social views to guide judicial decision making. Republican Lamar Smith of the House Judiciary Committee said: Nothing requires that a liberal be replaced by a liberal on the Supreme Court. Senator Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, who will conduct the confirmation hearings, said: I hope that senators on both sides of the aisle will make this process a thoughtful and civil discourse.

Justice Stevens was appointed by a Republican: President Ford in 1975. Over the years, he has become the leader of the Supreme Court's liberal minority, therefore his replacement is unlikely to shift the court's balance. But he has also been a coalition builder on an often divided court, something for President Obama to think about in choosing his successor.

President OBAMA: It will also be someone who, like Justice Stevens, knows that in a democracy powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. Much like they did with Justice Sotomayor, I hope the Senate will move quickly in the coming weeks to debate and then confirm my nominee so that the new justice is seated in time for the fall term.

SHAPIRO: Justice Sonia Sotomayor was President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee. Her confirmation pushed most other business off the Senate's agenda, and the Stevens replacement may have the same effect.

Liberal activists are pushing President Obama to nominate a strong progressive voice to replace Stevens. Centrists would prefer a quicker confirmation process with less of a fight. But Democrats expect to lose Senate seats in this year's midterm elections. So, as difficult as a confirmation battle may be today, it could be even tougher if the Senate is more closely divided in a year or two.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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