U.S. News

High court's Stevens to decide soon on retiring

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a leader of the court’s liberal wing, will decide soon whether to retire after 35 years on the court, two newspapers on Saturday quoted him as saying.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy (L) speaks with Justice John Paul Stevens during their official photograph with the other Justices at the Supreme Court in Washington September 29, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

Stevens, 89, has hinted for weeks that retirement may be at hand but has said he has not made up his mind. In interviews published in the New York Times and Washington Post, he discussed his possible retirement.

He plans to leave either this year or next, the Post reported, quoting Stevens as saying, “I will surely do it while he’s still president,” referring to Democratic President Barack Obama.

His retirement would allow Obama to make a second appointment to the court in a year, but it was not expected to change the court’s ideological makeup. The Senate confirmed Obama’s selection of appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor for the high court last summer.

“I do have to fish or cut bait, just for my own personal peace of mind and also in fairness to the process. The president and the Senate need plenty of time to fill a vacancy,” Stevens told the New York Times.

“I can tell you that I love the job and deciding whether to leave it is a very difficult decision,” he told the Washington Post. “But I want to make it in a way that’s best for the court.”

Stevens, who turns 90 on April 20, is one of the oldest and longest-serving justices in the history of the Supreme Court, which he joined in 1975 after being nominated by Republican President Gerald Ford.

The White House already has begun preparing to choose Stevens’s successor, the Post reported. Stevens told the Post that Obama, who has taught constitutional law, is a “very competent president” to make choices for the Supreme Court -- perhaps the best “since Gerald Ford.”

“It’s a wonderful job,” he told the Times. “... I wouldn’t have hung around so long if I didn’t like the job and if I didn’t think I was able to continue to do it.”

But he told the Times he was starting to feel his age. “I have to notice that I get arthritis in my left knee now and then. That wasn’t bothering me before. I’m conscious of changes.”

Obama nominated Sotomayor last May 26 and the Senate confirmed her on August 6, ahead of the traditional October opening of the Supreme Court term, despite criticism of her selection by many conservatives. She became the court’s first Hispanic justice and third woman justice.

Stevens is a defender of civil liberties and wrote the 2006 ruling that struck down military tribunals for detainees held at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He sided with the court’s liberal wing in most criminal law cases and on high-profile issues such as abortion, civil rights and church-state relations’

Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Will Dunham