Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy will step down from the bench on July 31, he announced Wednesday.
“It has been the greatest honor and privilege to serve our nation in the federal judiciary for 43 years, 30 of those years on the Supreme Court,” he said in a statement, which noted that he chose to step aside to spend more time with his family.
Kennedy, 81, has sat on the high court since 1988. The Ronald Reagan appointee is known for his frequent role as a swing vote on 5-4 decisions. In this Supreme Court term, Kennedy sided with the court’s conservative bloc in every one of the court’s 5-4 decisions.
With his departure, President Donald Trump is likely to appoint a more reliably conservative judge who will swing the balance of the court further to the right. Among the key issues at stake is the constitutional right to an abortion, as upheld in the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. With a conservative replacing Kennedy, anti-abortion activists are likely to shepherd a challenge to that ruling up to the Supreme Court.
Conservatives have long been preparing for Kennedy’s departure from the court and have been eyeing potential replacements since last year. Speaking shortly after Kennedy’s announcement, the president said his search for a nominee would begin immediately, and that he will choose a new judge from the list the White House circulated in November.
“We will vote to confirm Justice Kennedy’s successor this fall,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor shortly after Kennedy’s announcement.
The confirmation will likely take place ahead of the midterm elections in November, ABC reports. Democrats are aiming to regain control of the Senate this year.
McConnell previously delayed a confirmation vote during an election year, when former President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia after his death in 2016.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), facing a difficult re-election battle in the 2018 midterms, predicted in March that Kennedy would retire this year. Kennedy leaving the bench could “get our base a little motivated,” Heller said at an event in Las Vegas, according to audio from Politico.
Kennedy, who was raised in Sacramento, California, began his law career in private practice. He went on to teach law at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law and served on multiple judicial boards and committees.
He became more prominent in the legal world after President Gerald Ford nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, on which he served until his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kennedy leans conservative, but he has often broken with the court’s right wing in key cases, including in several landmark gay rights cases. He has been the deciding vote in some high-profile cases, including Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 ruling that rolled back some restrictions on campaign finance, and Boumediene v. Bush, in which the court found that Guantanamo Bay detainees have the right to appeal their detention.
Kennedy, however, has bristled at his “swing vote” reputation.
“The cases swing. I don’t,” he told Harvard Law School in 2015.
Kennedy is also known for writing the majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision that established the right of same-sex couples to marry. Kennedy’s opinion, which includes poetic turns of phrase about the importance of marriage, has become popular reading at both same-sex and opposite-sex weddings.