Breaking news from the Associated Press:
"Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's oldest member and leader of its liberal bloc, says he is retiring. President Barack Obama now has his second high court opening to fill.
"Stevens says he will step down when the court finishes its work for the summer in late June or early July. His announcement Friday in Washington had been hinted at for months. It comes 11 days before his 90th birthday."
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Update at 11:45 a.m. ET. Some Supreme Court math:
In his two terms as president, George W. Bush had the opportunity to fill two vacancies on the court. He nominated (and they were confirmed to the lifetime jobs) Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Roberts is 55 years old. Alito just turned 60.
President Barack Obama has already been able to put Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the court. She is 55.
Of the remaining justices: liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 77; liberal Stephen Breyer is 71; conservative Antonin Scalia is 74; and conservative Clarence Thomas is 61. Anthony Kennedy, often the "swing vote" in close decisions, is 73.
Update at 11:40 a.m. ET: President Barack Obama is on his way home from Prague, where he signed a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. The White House says he has been informed of Stevens' decision and will be making a statement about it (as well as the mine disaster in West Virginia) when he gets to the White House early this afternoon.
Update at 11:25 a.m. ET. Senate reaction:
The ideological lines that have been so clear in recent Supreme Court nomination battles are being drawn again. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has released a statement praising Stevens for his long service, "devotion to the institution and the gentlemanly manner in which he always carried out his work." Then, McConnell adds this:
"As we await the President's nominee to replace Justice Stevens at the end of his term, Americans can expect Senate Republicans to make a sustained and vigorous case for judicial restraint and the fundamental importance of an even-handed reading of the law."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee that will consider the nomination, has also praised Stevens. He then goes on to say that senators need to give the president's choice a fair hearing:
"I expect President Obama to continue his practice of consulting with members on both sides of the aisle as he considers this important nomination. The decisions of the Supreme Court are often made by only five individuals, but they impact the daily lives of each and every American. All Senators should strive to fulfill their constitutional duty of advise and consent, and give fair and thorough consideration to Justice Stevens' successor."
Update at 11:15 a.m. ET. Politico has the justice's letter:
"Having concluded that it would be in the best interests of the Court to have my successor appointed and confirmed well in advance of the commencement of the Court's next term, I shall retire from regular active service as an Associate Justice, under the provisions of 28 U.S.C. 371 (b), effective the next day after the Court rises for the summer recess this year.
"Most respectfully yours,
Update at 11:05 a.m. ET: As Stevens' official biography reminds us, he was nominated to the court by Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975. But over the years, he became a solid member of the High Court's so-called liberal wing.
Update at 10:48 a.m. ET: The interviews Stevens did in the past week included this one with The New York Times in which he said of the decision on whether or not to retire that:
"I do have to fish or cut bait, just for my own personal peace of mind and also in fairness to the process. ... The president and the Senate need plenty of time to fill a vacancy."
Last month, Fresh Air talked with New Yorker legal correspondent (and CNN analyst) Jeffrey Toobin about what a Stevens retirement would mean for the court. "Obama will appoint someone who will vote similarly," Toobin said.
Update at 10:45 a.m. ET. The AP adds that:
Stevens last September. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
"The timing of his announcement leaves ample time for the White House to settle on a successor and Senate Democrats, who control 59 votes, to conduct confirmation hearings and a vote. Republicans have not ruled out an attempt to delay confirmation.
"The leading candidates to replace Stevens are Solicitor General Elena Kagan, 49, and federal appellate Judges Merrick Garland, 57, and Diane Wood, 59.
"Stevens' departure will not change the court's conservative-liberal split because Obama is certain to name a liberal-leaning replacement."