The leading liberal on the US Supreme Court dropped more hints Sunday about his imminent departure, which has the White House bracing for a tricky confirmation battle as early as this summer.
Justice John Paul Stevens gave two interviews published over the weekend, one to The New York Times and the other to The Washington Post, but cagily refused to confirm a resignation that is expected either this year or next.
“I can tell you that I love the job, and deciding whether to leave is a very difficult decision,” Stevens, who turns 90 this month, told The Post. “But I want to make it in a way that’s best for the court.”
The liberal justice, picked by president Gerald Ford in 1975, said he would decide on the timing of his departure in about 30 days and confirmed he would definitely leave while Barack Obama was still president.
Given the polarization of US politics, particularly since Obama passed his sweeping health care overhaul despite blanket Republican opposition, lawmakers envisage a mighty Senate confirmation battle for Stevens’s successor.
“I hope… that Justice Stevens does not retire this year,” Arlen Specter, a Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, told the television talkshow “Fox News Sunday.”
“I think the gridlock in the Senate might well produce a filibuster which would tie up the Senate about a Supreme Court nominee. I think if a year passes, there’s a much better chance we could come to a consensus.”
Obama’s first nomination to the US top court was Sonia Sotomayor, who last August became the first Hispanic and only the third woman to sit in the Supreme Court’s 220-year history, after the Senate voted to confirm her by a 68-31 margin.
Stevens, who could become the longest-serving justice in Supreme Court history if he remains beyond February 23, 2011, told the Post he still writes the first draft of all majority opinions or dissents that bear his name.
“One of the tests I had for myself as to when I would retire was that if I ever got to the point that I stopped writing the first draft that would be a sign that I was no longer up to the job the way I think it should be done.”
But in The New York Times interview, the 89-year-old from Chicago admitted that health problems were starting to affect him.
“I have to notice that I get arthritis in my left knee now and then,” he said. “That wasn’t bothering me before. I’m conscious of changes.”
Stevens recently confirmed in an interview with the New Yorker that he hired a lone clerk for the 2010-2011 court session instead of the usual four, another possible indication that he will retire this year.
The departure of Stevens, who has served through seven presidencies, is unlikely to dramatically change the balance of the Supreme Court as Obama would be expected to pick another liberal to replace him.