U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter informed President Barack Obama Friday that he will retire later this year. Justice Souter's departure gives the president his first opportunity to make an appointment to the high court.
President Obama took the unusual step of interrupting the daily White House press briefing to announce that he had just spoken to Justice Souter and confirmed news reports that the justice intends to step down after the court's current term ends in June.
The president said he told Justice Souter that he was grateful for his dedicated service to the country.
President Obama must now nominate a successor to Justice Souter, and that nominee will eventually have to be confirmed by the Senate.
Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House that Justice Souter has shown what it means to be a fair-minded and independent judge. The president also said he will nominate someone who is dedicated to the rule of law.
"So I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives," he said.
Justice Souter's decision to retire was not a huge surprise. Souter was known to complain to friends about life in Washington over the years and often expressed an eagerness to return to his farmhouse in rural New Hampshire.
Souter is 69 and in good health. Retirement speculation had also focused on two other justices on the nine-member court -- 89-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens and 76-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg recently underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer but has said she intends to remain on the court indefinitely.
Like many of the justices, Souter can be an aggressive questioner during oral arguments before the Supreme Court.
"I don't understand with a record like that how you can maintain that things have radically changed?" He asked.
Souter was confirmed to the high court in 1990 after being nominated by President George H. W. Bush.
Conservatives had hoped Souter would support their positions on the high court, but he disappointed and angered many of them by proving to be a reliably liberal-leaning justice.
Douglas Kmiec is a constitutional law expert at Pepperdine University Law School in California.
"Justice Souter, while initially moderate in his votes, increasingly found himself comfortable with the logic and opinions of the progressive side, being very fond of Justice [John Paul] Stevens," said Kmiec.
Souter became a reliable vote in favor of abortion rights, one of the most divisive issues before the court. He also voted with the three other liberal justices on the losing side in the 2000 Bush versus Gore Supreme Court case that sealed the U.S. presidential election for George W. Bush.
Souter has been part of a liberal-leaning bloc of four justices. Four other justices make up a conservative bloc, led by chief Justice John Roberts. The key swing vote on the court remains Justice Anthony Kennedy, who tends to veer between moderate and conservatives positions on key cases.
President Obama is expected to nominate a liberal-leaning justice to replace Justice Souter, which would likely mean little change in the ideological balance on the high court.
This is Harvard University legal scholar Lawrence Tribe.
"The balance of the court with four liberals, four conservatives and one justice in the middle, Justice Kennedy, is not going to change as a result of Justice Souter's resignation [decision to retire]."
Many legal and political experts predict that women and Hispanic candidates will get a lot of attention in the upcoming nominee search. Justice Ginsburg is the only woman currently on the court, and there has never been a Hispanic justice.
Andrew Cohen is a legal analyst for CBS News.
"How does he [Obama] want to use this pick, which will be so symbolic for him, the first of his presidency? I would look for someone who is moderate to liberal, someone who can pass that senatorial test of the Judiciary Committee, and someone who is literally going to change the face of the court, whether that is a woman or a minority or both, remains to be seen," said Cohen.
Experts also note that Souter's appointment demonstrated the unexpected when it comes to Supreme Court picks.
Susan Low Bloch is a professor of Law at Georgetown University Law School in Washington.
"Even though presidents can nominate whoever they want, they can't control what the person does when they are on the bench, and it is a reminder that these justices are independent people," she said.
Once the president nominates his choice to succeed Justice Souter, that person will have to appear for confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee and a confirmation vote by the full Senate.
The current Supreme Court term expires at the end of June, and President Obama says he wants Justice Souter's replacement confirmed in time for the beginning of the Supreme Court's next term in early October.