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Clerk hiring signals Stevens may retire

Thu., Sept. 3, 2009

Justice’s leaving high court wouldn’t shift its balance

WASHINGTON – Justice John Paul Stevens, who will turn 90 early next year, has given a hint that this Supreme Court term will be his last, potentially clearing the way for a second appointee from President Barack Obama next summer.

Stevens, like most of the justices, hires new law clerks a year in advance, and he confirmed he has hired only one clerk for the fall of 2010, not the usual contingent of three or four. Retired justices have only one clerk.

Stevens has not said he will step down next year, and he could hire clerks in the months ahead. But his early hiring plans, which were first reported by the Associated Press, set off speculation that he has decided to retire.

Earlier this year, the first clear hint of Justice David Souter’s retirement came in the news that he had not hired a full set of law clerks.

Stevens, a Chicago native and an appointee of President Gerald Ford, has been the leading voice of the court’s liberal wing for nearly two decades.

In the 1980s, he argued in dissent for ending the death penalty for defendants who were mentally retarded or under age 18 at the time of their crimes. He eventually won majorities for both views. He also was an early champion for gay rights, and he played a key role in a 2003 decision that struck down state laws that criminalized sex among gays and lesbians.

Stevens, the court’s last veteran of World War II, also was instrumental in four decisions that rejected President George W. Bush’s prison policy at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and gave detainees a right to plead for their release before a federal judge.

There is no outward sign that Stevens – already the second-oldest justice in the court’s history – has slowed or no longer can keep up with the work. He is one of the few justices who writes a first draft of all his opinions and dissents, instead of relying on clerks. And in the courtroom, he asks probing questions of the lawyers.

If Stevens were to retire next summer, the ideological balance probably would not change. Obama could select a nominee to replace Stevens with the confidence that Democrats have a solid majority in the Senate.

In May, he interviewed Judge Diane Wood from Chicago, U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano before choosing Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

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