Associated Press Writers
WASHINGTON—The retirement of a veteran Supreme Court justice will give President Barack Obama his first opportunity to fill a vacancy on the highest U.S. tribunal.
But the departure of David Souter, part of the court's liberal wing, is unlikely to change the ideological balance of a court that became more conservative during George W. Bush's presidency.
The White House has been told that Souter will retire in June, when the court finishes its work for the summer, a source familiar with his plans said Thursday night. The retirement is likely to take effect only once a successor is confirmed; Obama's pick is likely to be a liberal-leaning nominee, much like Souter.
The source spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for Souter. Souter had no comment Thursday night, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said.
The make-up of the Supreme Court can be a high-stakes political issue since justices remain on the nine-member court for their lifetimes or until they retire. Bush's two appointees are seen as swinging the court to the right.
Nominees have to be confirmed by the Senate, which has often led to grueling showdowns, especially over abortion. But, Obama has an advantage with a strong Democratic majority and his nominee might be confirmed more smoothly than in the recent past.
Souter's vacancy could lead to another woman on the bench to join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, currently the court's only woman.
At 69, Souter is much younger than either Ginsburg, 76, or Justice John Paul Stevens, 89, the other two liberal justices whose names have been mentioned as possible retirees. Yet those justices have given no indication they intend to retire soon and Ginsburg said she plans to serve into her 80s despite her recent surgery for pancreatic cancer.
Souter, a regular jogger, is thought to be in excellent health.
Interest groups immediately began gearing up for what could be a grueling battle over a high court vacancy.
Interest groups immediately began gearing up.
"Obama's own record and rhetoric make clear that he will seek left-wing judicial activists who will indulge their passions, not justices who will make their rulings with dispassion," said Ed Whelan, president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.
"We're looking for President Obama to choose an eminently qualified candidate who is committed to the core constitutional values, who is committed to justice for all and not just a few," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice.
The Obama White House began from almost its first days in office preparing for the possibility of a retirement by thinking about and vetting potential high court nominees. Those efforts only accelerated with Ginsburg's cancer surgery.
The timing may have been unexpected, but Souter has long yearned for a life outside Washington.
He has never made any secret of his dislike for the capital, once telling acquaintances he had "the world's best job in the world's worst city." When the court finishes its work for the summer, he quickly departs for his beloved New Hampshire.
He has been on the court since 1990, when he was an obscure federal appeals court judge until President George H.W. Bush tapped him for the Supreme Court.
Bush White House aide John Sununu, the former conservative governor of New Hampshire, hailed his choice as a "home run." And early in his time in Washington, Souter was called a moderate conservative.
But he soon joined in a ruling reaffirming woman's right to an abortion, a decision from 1992 that remains still perhaps his most noted work on the court.
Souter became a reliable liberal vote on the court and was one of the four dissenters in the 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore that sealed the presidential election for George W. Bush.
Yet as Souter biographer Tinsley Yarbrough noted, "he doesn't take extreme positions." Indeed, in June, Souter sided with Exxon Mobil Corp. and broke with his liberal colleagues in slashing the punitive damages the company owed Alaskan victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Souter is the court's 105th justice, only its sixth bachelor. He works seven days a week through most of the court's October-to-July terms, a pace that he says leaves time for little else. He told an audience this year that he undergoes "an annual intellectual lobotomy" each fall.
Souter earned his bachelor's and law degrees from Harvard around a stay at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.
He became New Hampshire's attorney general in 1976 and became a state court judge two years later. By 1990, he was on the federal appeals court in Boston for only a few months when Bush picked him to replace Justice William Brennan on the Supreme Court.National Public Radio first reported Souter's plans Thursday night.
Associated Press writer Jesse J. Holland contributed to this report.