WASHINGTON — Bowtie-wearing lawyers and spectators dotted the U.S. Supreme Court chamber on Monday, a nod to retiring justice John Paul Stevens and his signature neckwear.
Stevens, 90, officially retires Tuesday, the first day of the Supreme Court's summer recess.
"If I have overstayed my welcome, it is because this is such a unique and wonderful job," said Stevens, who on his retirement will be the third-longest serving justice.
At the conclusion of the court's Monday session Chief Justice John Roberts read a letter to Stevens from his colleagues and the court's two retired justices. He noted that Stevens' 34 years on the bench meant he had served on the Supreme Court for "nearly one-sixth of its existence." Roberts said the members of the court would miss Stevens' "wisdom," "perceptive insights," and "vast life experience."
"Justice Stevens, we will allow you time for rebuttal," Roberts said after finishing the letter, a comment that drew laughter from observers.
Reading his own letter in response, Stevens told his fellow justices that it had been an "honor and privilege" to serve with the eight of them and 10 of their predecessors. He noted that when he began on the court he would have begun his response letter "Dear brethren," but that with two women now on the court "Dear colleagues" was more suitable.
Even as the court was wrapping up its year, hearings for Elena Kagan, the nominee to replace Stevens, were beginning in a nearby Senate building.
Stevens, who wore a red bowtie on his last day in court, also read one concurring opinion from the bench in a case about patents, Bilski v. Kappos. He noted that his written opinion was "extremely long" but that his statement from the bench would be brief.
Stevens' retirement Tuesday will mean he has served 34 years, 6 months and 10 days on the court. Stephen J. Field, a nominee of President Abraham Lincoln who served until 1897, served one day longer. William O. Douglas, who served for 36 years and whom Stevens replaced in 1975, is the longest-serving justice. The court originally believed Field and Stevens were tied for the second-longest service.
Stevens' retirement makes Justice Antonin Scalia, who became a justice in 1986, the most senior justice on the court.
Also on Monday, Roberts began the court's session by noting the death of Martin Ginsburg, the husband of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg, 78, died Sunday from complications of metastatic cancer. Justice Ginsburg was on the bench for Stevens' last day.
(This version CORRECTS with updated information from the Supreme Court, which now says Stevens will retire as third-longest serving.)