Less than an hour ago word came from Washington that Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who was selected by President Ford as William O. Douglas’s replacement in 1975, has announced that he will retire when the Court’s spring term concludes at the end of June. In recent interviews, Stevens, who turns 90 on April 20, has emphasized that he has no interest in trying to break Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr’s record as the oldest person to sit on the Court, or Douglas’s as its longest-serving Justice. But his announcement is still somewhat surprising.
The Justice’s decision to retire presents another challenge to the Obama White House, of finding a nominee who can be confirmed by a majority of the Senate with no more debate and controversy than that which surrounded the comparatively smooth progress of Justice Sonia Sotomayor through the nomination process. As the Washington Post notes today, the candidate who seems most favored by the President at the moment is his Solicitor General, Elena Kagan, previously the dean of Harvard Law School. Ms. Kagan was confirmed for the Federal post by a Senate vote of 61-31 in March 2009, which might seem to augur well for her appointment to the Court. But quite a lot has changed in thirteen months, and the process may well be a tougher one for such a selection now.