WASHINGTON – Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement Friday, setting up a long-anticipated confirmation battle during the most sensitive of political seasons.
Stevens, who will turn 90 on April 20, said that after 34 years on the high court it was time to step down.
“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,” Stevens said in a letter to President Barack Obama.
Obama, who spoke with Stevens by phone Friday, said that he “will move quickly in coming weeks” to nominate a replacement. Like Stevens, Obama said, the new nominee will work to ensure that “powerful interests” are held in check when necessary.
“While we cannot replace Justice Stevens’ experience or wisdom, I will seek someone in the coming weeks 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,” the president said.
Stevens’ departure in June at the end of the 2009-’10 term will remove from the court its most senior justice as well as the linchpin of the liberal wing. Stevens’ retirement also will ensure that the Supreme Court is front and center during the upcoming midterm congressional elections.
Republicans are eager to unite around an issue that will engage their conservative base. The president’s Democratic Party controls 59 seats in the Senate, one short of the number that is needed to stop a filibuster. In a break with tradition, some senators have signaled that they wouldn’t be reluctant to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee.
“I hope that senators on both sides of the aisle will make this process a thoughtful and civil discourse,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Americans can expect Senate Republicans to make a sustained and vigorous case for judicial restraint and the fundamental importance of an evenhanded reading of the law,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
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