Justice David Souter is planning to retire after nearly two decades on the Supreme Court, but his departure is unlikely to change its conservative-liberal split.
President Barack Obama’s first pick for the high court is likely to be a liberal-leaning nominee, much like Souter.
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.
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 vacancy could lead to another woman on the bench to join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, currently the court’s only female justice.
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.
"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.
Some of the names that have been circulating include recently confirmed Solicitor General Elena Kagan; U.S. Appeals Court Judges Sonya Sotomayor, Kim McLane Wardlaw, Sandra Lea Lynch and Diane Pamela Wood; and Leah Ward Sears, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Men who have been mentioned as potential nominees include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein and U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo of Chicago.
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 sandwiched around a stay at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.
He became New Hampshire’s attorney general in 1976 and 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.