Supreme Court Justice David Souter plans to inform his colleagues Friday of his intention to retire from the bench, a legal source said.
Souter is expected to discuss his decision during a weekly closed-door meeting. Souter wanted to notify his associates in private before making a public announcement, the source said. There was no immediate indication of when Souter officially would inform the White House. Previous retiring justices have traditionally informed the president by letter, delivered by a court staffer to the White House. There is no legal requirement the president be personally informed, but since he has the sole power to nominate federal judges, such notification is done as a courtesy. Souter, 69, will leave the Supreme Court after the current term recesses in June, a source said Thursday. Filling Souter’s seat would be President Obama’s first Supreme Court appointment — and the first since President Bush picked Samuel Alito in 2006 and Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005. Souter’s departure will leave the two oldest justices — and the most liberal — still on the bench. Retirements for John Paul Stevens, 89, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 76, have been rumored for years, with many expecting that one or the other would be the first to give the new Democratic president a Supreme Court vacancy.
Souter known as fierce defender of individual rights
White House already on a hunt to replace Souter
Souter news sets off succession speculation
Teen’s school strip-search case heads to high court
Souter’s decision came as something of a surprise, although he has long been known to prefer the quiet of his New Hampshire farmhouse to the bustle of the nation’s capital. President George H.W. Bush nominated Souter for the high court in 1990. The justice disappointed many conservatives when he turned out to be a typical old-fashioned, Yankee Republican, a moderate with an independent, even quirky streak. David Hackett Souter had been on the federal appeals court bench for a few months when he was tapped to replace liberal lion William Brennan, a choice many Republicans hoped would move the Supreme Court rightward and reshape American law. Souter has had a long career in public service. He was New Hampshire’s attorney general and a trial judge who later sat on that state’s Supreme Court. Senate confirmation hearings to the U.S. high court were a breeze, because his federal experience was brief and his public stance on hot-button issues such as abortion remained fuzzy. “I have not got any agenda on what should be done with Roe v. Wade if that case were brought before me,” he told senators at the time. “I will listen to both sides of that case. I have not made up my mind.” One of the first surprises for conservatives came in 1992 when the Supreme Court reaffirmed the fundamental right to abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Souter was part of a three-justice coalition that ultimately decided the case. In doing so, the “no undue burden” legal test was established when states were considering limiting a woman’s access to abortion. Souter’s personality has made him stand out on the Supreme Court despite efforts to avoid the spotlight. A lifelong bachelor, he has lived alone in a tiny Washington apartment, escaping often to his family farm in rural New Hampshire. He has kept comfortably to routine, bringing a daily lunch of an apple and yogurt in a plastic grocery bag, eating alone in his chambers. Friends have said his favorite pastimes are reading, jogging and hiking in the New Hampshire mountains, activities he almost always does by himself. Colleagues dismiss reports Souter was ready to quit the court after the 2000 Florida ballot disputes handed the presidency to George W. Bush. But they privately confirmed what a personal blow the rulings had on the integrity of the court he loved. “He was very aggrieved by December 12, 2000,” said Ralph Neas, former director of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. “He believed it was the ultimate politicization of the Supreme Court.” To critics, Souter siding with the liberal bloc only reaffirmed their view of him as a disappointment. “He has not made a name for himself in any large body of jurisprudence,” said Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University who worked on high court nominations in the Reagan and Bush administrations. “He’s been kind of a go-along guy in the context of the liberal or progressive side of the court. I think George Bush wanted more out of his judicial nominee than that, but that’s what he got.” But others think history will judge Souter in kinder terms. “[He’s] a judge’s judge,” said Rebecca Tushnet, a former Souter law clerk and professor at Georgetown Law Center, “someone with deep respect of the institution and a deep faith in the ability of Americans in all branches to work things out.”