Washington Report: Updates from Capitol Hill

Washington Report: Updates from Capitol Hill

With Stevens’ Retirement, Obama to Name New Justice

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens announced on Friday that he will retire at the end of the court’s term in June or July. At 89, Stevens is its oldest and longest-serving judge and is also considered to be the leader of its liberal wing.

In a letter to Obama, Stevens wrote: “Having concluded that 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, I shall retire from active service.”

The timing of Stevens’ announcement leaves enough time for the president to name a successor and for Senate Democrats, who have a 59-vote majority, to hold confirmation hearings and a vote before the court’s next term begins in October, according to the Associated Press.

Now Obama has a second opportunity to fill a Supreme Court seat, he will have to act more gingerly than he did with the appointment of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. He will likely pick someone who is as liberal as Sotomayor, but perhaps less liberal than Stevens.

“He’s got to play his political cards right, which is to say he will want to try to get someone who will have a reasonable chance of getting through the Senate, so he won’t go in a really liberal direction,” predicts University of California-Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.

Indeed, with the November mid-term elections looming, Obama can ill-afford another bitter partisan fight, particularly so soon after the battle over healthcare reform, which has left many Democratic lawmakers feeling scarred. Friday morning, Rep. Bert Stupak (D-Michigan), who helped negotiate the abortion compromise in the healthcare bill, which helped it get the requisite number of votes needed for passage, also announced his retirement.

“Things have only gotten more bitter since [Sotomayor’s nomination]. The fact that Stupak decided not to run because of the vitriolic environment, the death threats to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shows we’re clearly in a very bitter period,” says Cain. “Obama realizes that the Republicans are smelling a potential midterm victory or gains, and he doesn’t want to give them any more ammunition.”

Cain added that Obama has to ensure that whomever he nominates is thoroughly researched and vetted and if the process is not handled properly, it will negatively impact the perception of him as president.

Possible candidates to replace Stevens include Solicitor General Elena Kagan, 49, and federal appellate judges Merrick Garland, 57, in Washington and Diane Wood, 59, in Chicago, writes the AP.

Cain pointed to Kagan as the right sort of choice, because she is centrist and has impeccable academic credentials. It would be very difficult for Republicans to characterize her as a someone who’s wildly liberal or undeserving of the robe. Wood also is considered more centrist.

Stevens was nominated to the bench by President Gerald Ford in 1975. Since then, he has often issued rulings with court’s liberal-leaning jurists. Most famously, he led the dissenters in the case of Bush v. Gore over the 2000 presidential election.