Has the Stevens Retirement Watch Begun?

By Kevin Fayle on September 02, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has had a good run so far.

At 89, he's currently the second-oldest person to serve on the Court (behind Oliver Wendell Holmes), and his more than 33 years on the court places him seventh on the list of the longest-serving justices.

So, after all that, is Stevens, a key member of the Court's liberal wing, thinking of hanging up his gavel and robe?
Many seem to think so, based on his staffing decisions for the October 2010 term.  Stevens has hired only one law clerk for that term so far, even though he's entitled to four.  While it's certainly possible that he could hire more in the future, Stevens typically announces all his hires simultaneously, according to former clerks of his.

Retired justices may hire a single clerk, so Stevens' decision to hire just one clerk for October 2010 has predictably stirred up the hive of Supreme Court observers.

While the hiring news doesn't necessarily prove anything one way or another, now-retired Justice David Souter fueled similar retirement speculation when he failed to hire any clerks at all for the next term.  Shortly after news of this staffing decision broke, Souter announced his departure from the Court.

If Stevens leaves, it will give President Barack Obama his second Supreme Court appointment.  As the senior member of the liberal wing, Stevens retirement isn't likely to affect the ideological balance of the Court, but Stevens is known as a masterful strategist, and his absence could weaken the liberal bloc's influence within the Court. 

The senior member of the majority (if the majority doesn't include the Chief Justice) also decides who writes the majority opinion, which is a vitally important role.  As any student of constitutional law will tell you, the personality behind the opinions more often than not determines what course the law on a particular issue will take. 

Supreme Court justices try to space out their retirements so as not to disturb the functioning of the Court too much, although the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor occurred only a year apart. 

Perhaps, based on that precedent, Stevens has decided that retirements in rapid succession aren't such a bad thing after all - especially when there's a president in the White House who will nominate a succesor likely to carry on his ideological legacy.
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