After hinting for some time that he might, the wonderful Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens today announced that he’ll retire from the Supreme Court when the current term is up this summer. Stevens turns 90 later this month, and wants a Democrat to appoint his successor; we’ve had plenty of time to speculate on who that will be (one of the people we thought would have replaced Souter, if not Sotomayor, is the consensus).
Even with Obama appointing Stevens’s successor, however, it’s unlikely that the Court will move to the left, now or at any point during the Obama years, as I wrote last fall.
Justice Stevens (a Ford appointee!) is the most liberal member of the court, and Obama has shown little inclination to risk losing a confirmation battle: as Senate Republicans have been egregious about blocking qualified lower-court nominees, and they handled the Sotomayor hearings masterfully, voicing ideological objections as philosophical ones, in such a way as to reinforce the conservative myth of a totally apolitical dispassionate judiciary. It’s a narrative Democrats have done little to oppose, so it’s unlikely, especially in this midterm-year climate, that the will to break through a filibuster on a qualified, genuinely liberal nominee will suddenly materialize. (The best piece on this we’ve read is from Slate’s always-wonderful Dahlia Lithwick, who sums up, pithily: It’s hard to see “what Obama wants in a judge—beyond a confirmation.”)
So yes, expect another moderately left-leaning judge who will continue to pretend, during her confirmation hearings, that she’s just as apolitical as Roberts and Alito pretended to be, and won’t lay any liberal philosophical foundations while on the court. If we’re lucky, Stevens’s departure will at least encourage Ruth Bader Ginsburg to become a more visible voice of a progressive judiciary. Somebody‘s got to…