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April 08, 2010

Stevens Retirement Sets Stage for US Supreme Court Confirmation Battle

by Jim Malone

The U.S. Supreme Court is losing its most senior justice.  Justice John Paul Stevens has announced he will retire from the high court after the court's current term winds up in June.  Stevens' departure will give President Barack Obama the opportunity to appoint a second Supreme Court justice and sets the stage for what could be a partisan confirmation fight in the Senate.  

Word of Justice Stevens' retirement was not a surprise.  Stevens will turn 90 later this month and has given hints in recent months that he was considering retirement.

Just back from signing an arms treaty in Europe, President Obama offered praise for Justice Stevens at the White house.

"During that tenure, he has stood as an impartial guardian of the law," said President Obama. "He has worn the judicial robe with honor and humility."

The president said he had talked with Stevens by phone.  Mr. Obama also said he would nominate a replacement for Justice Stevens with similar qualities.

"An independent mind, a record of excellence and integrity, a fierce dedication to the rule of law and a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people," said Mr. 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."

John Paul Stevens was appointed to the nine-member Supreme Court in 1975 by President Gerald Ford.  Stevens is one of the oldest and longest-serving justices in U.S. history.  He spoke about his longevity on the high court in an interview last October with the CSPAN public affairs network.

"No, I'm not out to break any records, I can assure you of that," said John Paul Stevens. "I just enjoy the work and each year that I have thought about it I have decided that I continue to enjoy it and continue to make a contribution."

Stevens began his court tenure as a moderate, but over time he became a leading liberal voice on the high court.  Stevens is considered the leader of the so-called four-member liberal bloc on the court, which often finds itself in the minority against the five-member conservative majority.

Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion in the 2000 Supreme Court case that settled the disputed election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.  He also wrote the court opinion that gave terror detainees the right to go to U.S. courts to challenge their confinement at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

On domestic issues, Stevens has been a reliable vote on the court in support of abortion rights, affirmative action programs for minorities and for maintaining the separation of government and religion in several cases.  

In his CSPAN interview last year, Stevens spoke about the factors in his life that shaped his judicial philosophy.

"A lot of it is just the result of your reading," he said. "A lot of it is your own experiences.  I know, for example, that my experiences during World War II shaped my thinking in some cases.  I was in the Navy.  And my experiences as a practicing lawyer have had an impact on the work I've done."

It is expected that President Obama will nominate a liberal-leaning justice to replace Justice Stevens.  That would maintain the ideological split on the high court that tends to break down five to four in favor of the court's conservative majority.

Whoever is nominated by the president faces hearings and a confirmation vote by the U.S. Senate.  That process can become politically divisive, especially in the wake of the polarizing debate over the president's health care reform law.

Tom Korologos is a veteran Republican lobbyist and former Senate aide who has helped several Supreme Court nominees win Senate confirmation.

"In the early days, nominees got approved the same day they got named," said Tom Korologos. "And it has now become very contentious.  It is a function of this town in which we live.  The town has gotten very partisan."

Democrats control 59 of the 100 Senate seats and confirmation of the next justice will require a simple majority vote.

A presidential nominee to replace Justice Stevens is expected sometime in the next several weeks.  The president said Friday he hopes the Senate can confirm his nominee in time for the new justice to take her or his place on the court in October when the next Supreme Court term begins.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement saying Republicans will be looking to make sure the nominee follows the principle of judicial restraint in terms of an approach to deciding constitutional cases.

President Obama did appoint Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court last year, the first Hispanic-American elevated to the high court.  Some women's groups are already urging the president to appoint another woman to the court this year to replace Stevens.  Justice Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are the only two women on the court at present.