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John Paul Stevens On Supreme Court Retirement: 'I Have To Fish Or Cut Bait'

AP//The Huffington Post   First Posted: 06/03/10 06:12 AM ET   Updated: 05/25/11 05:05 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens says he "will surely" retire while President Barack Obama is still in office, giving the president the opportunity to maintain the high court's ideological balance.

Stevens said in newspaper interviews on the Web Saturday that he will decide soon on the timing of his retirement, whether it will be this year or next. Stevens, the leader of the court's liberals, turns 90 this month and is the oldest justice.

His departure would give Obama his second nomination to the court, enabling him to ensure there would continue to be at least four liberal-leaning justices. The high court is often split 5 to 4 on major cases, with the vote of moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy often deciding which side prevails.

"I will surely do it while he's still president," Stevens told The Washington Post.

But Stevens, who was named to the court by Republican President Gerald R. Ford in 1975, says he still loves the job, and says he continues to write the first draft of his own opinions.

Stevens says if it ever gets to point where he stopped doing that, it would be a sign he wasn't up to the job anymore.

Stevens is the second-oldest justice in the court's history, after Oliver Wendell Holmes. He is the seventh-longest-serving justice, with more than 34 years on the court.

Another liberal, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had surgery last year for early-stage pancreatic cancer. While Ginsburg has been her usual energetic self, including frequent speaking engagements and a teaching stint in Europe, long-term survival rates for pancreatic cancer are low.

Ginsburg, 77, has said she intends to serve into her early 80s, and she has hired her clerks for the court term that begins in October 2010.

Justices are reluctant to retire in bunches, mainly because they want the nine-member court as close to full strength as possible.

Stevens also is nearing two longevity records. When he joined the court, he replaced the longest-serving justice, William O. Douglas, and would need to serve until mid-July 2012 to top that service record. He would surpass Holmes as the oldest sitting justice if he were to remain on the court until Feb. 24, 2011.

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

The Huffington Post interviewed a host of constitutional law professors and other legal cognoscenti. Below is a look at the candidates that have emerged as leading contenders for Justice Stevens' seat on the bench -- click here (and scroll down) for much more reporting about each potential new Justice.

Elena Kagan
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There appears to be a growing consensus that Solicitor General Elena Kagan is the front-runner for the position. Kagan comes armed with a formidable set of credentials: Associate White House Counsel during the Clinton Administration; Professor and then Dean of Harvard Law School; and now, Solicitor General of the United States, the appointee tasked with representing the U.S. Government in cases before the Supreme Court.

At Harvard, Kagan forged a reputation for herself as a savvy consensus-builder, uniting a factious faculty divided along ideological lines.

"She has a terrific political sense," says Charles Fried, Professor at Harvard Law School and Solicitor General in the Reagan administration. "She knows how to frame issues so that people see things her way."

Her interpersonal political prowess shone through in a law school then plagued by inertia.

"The faculty had been divided politically on left-right grounds and had difficulty making [faculty] appointments," explains Harvard Professor Mark Tushnet. "But she was able to break the logjam by explaining to people that the law school was stagnating and that it could move forward only if it overcame these issues."

On a fractured Court with an ascendant right wing, her capacity for persuasive diplomacy could prove pivotal.

Equally in Kagan's favor is the absence of a potentially compromising legal paper trail. In the wake of a bruising health care debate, it's likely that President Obama will want to minimize the amount of political capital he expends on a Supreme Court nominee.

"Kagan is unique in that, like Justice John Roberts, she's universally respected but hasn't written on divisive topics that could make confirmation difficult," says University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Theodore Ruger.

Kagan, 49, also has youth on her side. Opting for a young Supreme Court nominee has traditionally allowed a President to extend his influence beyond his term in office and cement his political legacy, a trend that arguably started with President Reagan's appointment of Antonin Scalia, who was 50 at the time of his nomination to the bench.
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