WASHINGTON (BP)–Liberal Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said Friday he will retire this summer, an announcement that wasn’t surprising considering his age but one that will give President Obama his second opportunity in as many years to put his stamp on the court.
Stevens’ departure almost certainly won’t change the court’s ideological makeup, because Obama likely will name a left-leaning replacement who will hold the same legal philosophy as does Stevens, who some considered the leader of the court’s four-member liberal bloc.
Stevens, who will turn 90 on April 20, was a consistent supporter of legalized abortion and opponent of religion in the public square, and his vote rarely pleased social conservatives.
“I will seek someone in the coming weeks with similar qualities — an independent mind, a record of excellence and integrity, a fierce dedication to the rule of law, and a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people,” Obama said after receiving a letter from Stevens announcing his pending retirement.
Nominated by President Ford in 1975, Stevens’ retirement had been the source of speculation for years, and picked up steam last year when it was learned he was hiring only one law clerk for the upcoming term instead of the standard four. His health apparently did not play a factor: Court observers consistently remark that Stevens appears to be in great shape for his age.
“This is perhaps the most solid indication of many that the Democrats expect to have major losses in the November elections, and Justice Stevens wants his successor to be picked by a Senate that has 59 votes in the Democratic caucus rather than one that has 50 or less,” Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press.
Land said he expects Obama to pick a successor “probably at least as liberal” as Stevens, “given the president’s track record with Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor and his nominations to the appellate court.”
Stevens was confirmed two years after Roe v. Wade and appeared at first he might at least lean conservative — he voted in 1978 with a 5-4 majority to uphold the FCC’s authority to restrict indecent speech — but he eventually made his voice as a social liberal known.
In 1980 he was on the losing end of a 5-4 ruling in which the majority said the government did not have to fund abortion in the Medicaid program. Also in 1980 he sided with a 5-2 majority in striking down a Kentucky law that had required a copy of the Ten Commandments be posted in each public school classroom. In 1984 Stevens was on the losing end of a 5-4 decision that upheld the display of a nativity scene in a city’s public area.
He also voted with a 5-4 majority in a 1992 landmark abortion case that upheld Roe v. Wade. That same year, he voted with a 5-4 majority in ruling that a Rhode Island high school had violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause by inviting a rabbi to pray before a graduation.
Stevens’ socially liberal pattern continued until he retired:
— He voted twice to overturn partial-birth abortion bans — once in 2000 when he was on the winning end and a second time in 2007 when he was on the short end of a 5-4 decision.
— He consistently sided with laws favored by homosexual activists. In 2000 when the court said the Boy Scouts could bar homosexuals from serving as troop leaders, Stevens voted in the minority. Stevens also voted to overturn anti-sodomy laws twice — in 1986, when he was in the minority, and in 2003, when he helped form a 6-3 landmark majority.
— In 2005 he voted against the public display of the Ten Commandments in a pair of cases that saw the court issue a split decision.
— In 2004 he sided with a 5-4 majority that overturned a federal law aimed at protecting children from Internet pornography.
— In 2008 he wrote in a concurring opinion that he believed the death penalty was unconstitutional.
Stevens did side with social conservatives on occasion, such as in 2008 when he voted with a 7-2 majority that upheld a law aimed at combating child porn.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said Stevens’ replacement will have a significant impact on the court.
“Make no mistake about it — this appointment really represents more than just replacing one vote on the court,” Sekulow said. “With a replacement who is likely to serve for 30 or 40 years, it’s clear this replacement will have a long-term impact on judicial philosophy and likely play a determining factor in decisions for decades to come.”
Land said that despite disagreeing often with Stevens, he acknowledges and admires “his sense of duty and patriotism.”
“Any lawyer who is bright enough to be nominated to be a Supreme Court justice could make many, many times as much money annually in the private sector as they could serving as a Supreme Court justice,” Land said. “It is a tremendous financial sacrifice for any Supreme Court justice to serve.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.