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.
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.
Judge Diane Wood of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has been firmly entrenched on the Democratic short list for the Supreme Court. Appointed in 1995 by President Clinton, she has amassed a substantial judicial track record and served as a liberal foil to conservative heavyweights on the Circuit Court, including Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook. She previously burnished her credentials as a lawyer on the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. "She fits the mold of every Supreme Court Justice over the last 25 years," says Cornell Law Professor Michael Dorf, referring to her status as a Circuit Court Judge. Unfortunately for Judge Wood, her judicial record could prove polarizing. "She has a body of record on a number of hot-button issues, including abortion, which would be fodder for opposition," notes Professor Ruger. At 59, she is also a decade older than Solicitor General Kagan.
Judge Merrick Garland of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has also received a considerable degree of attention. Garland is generally considered a moderate. But his prior work under the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, says Professor Tushnet, could "give him a pro-prosecution bent. He's almost certainly to the right of Wood and Kagan." In light of Justice Sotomayor's confirmation last year, there is perhaps less demographic pressure on the president this time around. Judge Garland's status as a white male, however, could well handicap his prospects.
Comparisons have been drawn between Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a pragmatist who also held public office. "I think the Court could use the pragmatic governing experience she has," says Professor Steven Schwinn of John Marshall Law School. "Someone like Granholm, who's been dealing with Michigan's problems and hard economic times -- her experience would be invaluable on the Court." Born in Canada, Granholm could not expect to advance through the ranks and ever become a Presidential or Vice Presidential candidate, making such a position potentially desirable from her perspective. She has, however, yet to express an interest in the position.
Judge Thomas serves on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. President Bill Clinton nominated Thomas, currently 56, to the bench in 1995. Prior to his time on the bench, Thomas served as a partner at the law firm Moulton, Bellingham, Longo & Mather, which specializes in bankruptcy and media law.
Minow is the Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. From her Harvard University biography: "[Minow] has taught at Harvard Law School since 1981, where her courses have included civil procedure, constitutional law, family law, international criminal justice, jurisprudence, law and education, nonprofit organizations, and the public law workshop. An expert in human rights and advocacy for members of racial and religious minorities and for women, children, and persons with disabilities, she also writes and teaches about privatization, military justice, and ethnic and religious conflict."
Leah Ward Sears is the former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Sears, 54, retired from her Georgia Court position last year and now practices law for a private firm. She was the first African American woman to serve as Chief Justice in a U.S. court and, with her nomination by Georgia Gov. Zell Miller in 1992, became the first woman and the youngest person to ever sit on the Georgia Supreme Court.
Cass Sunstein, a former law professor at Harvard, last year joined the Obama administration as the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget. Widely revered in academic circles, he is another serious contender for a spot on the Court. "Sunstein is probably the most creative and influential legal thinker of the last 20 years," says Chicago Law School Professor Geoff Stone. "He's the most cited law professor in the United States, has been a prolific writer and scholar, has a capacious intellect and would bring to bear an extraordinary knowledge of administrative and constitutional law that would enrich the Court in profound ways." In the context of a Senate confirmation hearing, however, Sunstein's work -- honest and of staggering scope -- could be easily caricatured. "He's written freely and speculatively, and so there's no doubt that, if taken out of context, [his work] could be seen as out of the mainstream," Stone acknowledges. "But that would be true of any first-rate academic."
Elizabeth Warren is the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel tasked with investigating the bailout of the financial services sector and the application of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). She is also a professor at Harvard Law School, specializing in contract, bankruptcy and commercial law. Although floated as a highly credible candidate, she is, accordingly to the L.A. Times, not on the official White House short list.
Pamela Karlan is the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law at Stanford Law School. Although widely touted as a potential Supreme Court nominee, her decidedly liberal disposition would likely generate stiff opposition in the Senate.
Kathleen Sullivan is the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law and former Dean of Stanford Law School. Insiders suggest she remains on the short list for a nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, making a Supreme Court nomination unlikely.