WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced on Friday he will resign, and President Barack Obama said he wanted someone with a sharp, independent mind for his first appointment to the nation’s highest court.
Souter, 69, who has been on the court since 1990, said in a brief letter to the White House that he intended to retire when the justices go on their summer recess at the end of next month.
Minutes later, Obama made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room after speaking to Souter and said: “I am incredibly grateful for his dedicated service. I told him as much when we spoke.”
Souter’s retirement plans, which leaked out late on Thursday, sparked a frenzy of speculation about Obama’s search for a replacement, although the transition is unlikely to change the nine-member court’s ideological balance. Souter usually sides with the court’s three other liberal justices.
“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 just about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook,” Obama said.
With a rare vacancy on the court looming, advocacy groups were already positioning for a possible confirmation battle before the U.S. Senate, which has to give its approval to Obama’s nominee.
“As I make this decision, I intend to consult with members of both parties across the political spectrum. And it is my hope we can swear in our new Supreme Court justice in time for him or her to be seated by the first Monday in October when the court’s new term begins,” Obama said.
Obama will likely face heavy pressure to name another woman or the first Hispanic. Possible candidates include Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and appeals court judges Sonia Sotomayor and Diane Wood.
Souter belongs to the court’s liberal wing and Obama would be expected to name someone with a similar philosophy. He could also name a younger justice who could serve for decades.
Appointed for life, Supreme Court justices decide such divisive issues as abortion rights and the death penalty. The court even decided the 2000 presidential election.
It would be the first Supreme Court justice named by a Democrat since 1994. Republican President George W. Bush named two justices in his eight years in office -- conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
Chosen for the Supreme Court by Republican President George Bush, Souter proved to be far more liberal than expected.
He has supported abortion rights and campaign-finance restrictions aimed at political corruption and has voted in favor of the legal rights of the prisoners held at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Picking a Supreme Court nominee would be another major task for Obama, who is already dealing with two wars, a major recession and efforts in Congress to provide health insurance to all Americans and curb global warming.
An administration official said Obama and his aides have been preparing for a Supreme Court vacancy since the early days of the transition after the November election.
In December, during meetings in Chicago and Washington, Obama personally suggested names of individuals whom he would give serious consideration for any opening, the official said.
As part of the preparation process and before the news broke, there was a senior White House staff meeting on Thursday to discuss how to support a Supreme Court nominee selection process in the event of a vacancy, the official said.
Conservative Republicans may not like the eventual nominee chosen by Obama, but since the Democrats have a powerful majority in the Senate there may not be much they can do about it.
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles, David Alexander, Thomas Ferraro and Caren Bohan; editing by Mohammad Zargham