Justice Stevens prepares to step down

Most people who pay attention to the U.S. Supreme Court knew that Justice John Paul Stevens — the longest-serving member of the current court — was expected to resign soon. Stevens is 89 and has said he wanted to retire during President Barack Obama’s first term. So Friday’s announcement that he will retire this summer didn’t catch many people off guard.

Still, it sets off a scramble for Obama to nominate, and the Senate to confirm, a new justice before the start of the October term.

But Stevens’ legacy shouldn’t be forgotten in that political process. He is a well-respected justice whose first few years on the court were relatively quiet, but who grew to be a vocal opponent to the more conservative elements on the court. He also developed a knack for convincing other justices to join in his views. He wrote the decision that was a major defeat for the Bush administration’s policies for handling terrorist prisoners and he offered a lengthy dissent to the court’s decision last year that expanded the ability of corporations and unions to spend money on political campaigns.

Few expect the ideological makeup of the court to change significantly with Stevens’ retirement. Obama is almost certain to pick a replacement who reflects similar political and legal views.

However, even the president can’t be sure which direction his nominee will lean once on the bench. Stevens, for example, was viewed as a moderate Republican when he was nominated by President Gerald Ford in 1975.

Regardless of the person Obama nominates, get ready for a bruising confirmation fight. Republicans are still smarting from the president’s victory on health care reform. And unlike last year, when Justice Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed, they now have enough votes to filibuster. Additionally, the chance to try to paint Obama and the Democrats as far more liberal than the majority of Americans will be an opportunity the Republicans can’t pass to up, especially in the months just before a general election.

That’s just the way politics is played by both parties in 21st century America. But, so long as Obama nominates someone who is qualified judicially to sit on the Supreme Court, and that someone does not have any scandalous skeletons lurking in a closet, Republicans will be hard-pressed to reject the president’s nominee.


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