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Reports: Justice to retire; speculation begins

May 1, 2009

Reports broke late Thursday that a Supreme Court of the United States justice plans to retire from the bench but which justice may surprise some. Justice David Hackett Souter has decided to leave the bench following the current SCOTUS term, according to national news outlets. His retirement was confirmed this afternoon in a SCOTUS press release.

Valparaiso University School of Law professor Ivan Bodensteiner said he wasn't surprised by the reports Justice Souter may be the first to leave the nation's highest court during President Barack Obama's administration. While many expected Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who recently underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer, or Justice John Paul Stevens, who is 89, to leave the bench first, Bodensteiner said there have been stories for sometime that Justice Souter doesn't like Washington, D.C., and was ready to return to New Hampshire.

Justice Souter sat on the Superior and Supreme Courts of New Hampshire prior to being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Following his appointment to the Supreme Court, some began to view Justice Souter as a disappointment because he aligned more with the "liberals" of the court, said Bodensteiner.

The assumption was he would be a reliable conservative, although no one knew much about him when he took the bench, said Indiana University Maurer School of Law - Bloomington professor Charles Geyh. He established himself as a moderating influence on the court, and now appears more liberal than moderate because of the court's progressive shift to the right during the last generation. Geyh said he was surprised to learn of Justice Souter's retirement but thinks his leaving could set a good precedent for the court.

"If the reason he is retiring is because he's reached reasonable retirement age and thinks it's a good idea to leave when you reach a certain age, then it could set a good precedent," he said.

Sometimes justices may retain their spot on the bench longer than they should, and it's good to get new blood on the court. Geyh finds it interesting Justice Souter may view his time on the bench like many other Americans view their jobs and think when they reach a certain age, it's simply time to retire.

Both Bodensteiner and Geyh don't think Justice Souter's replacement will shift the ideological power of the court because President Obama will most likely pick someone who is also considered a liberal. However, Bodensteiner cautioned that we can't predict how a future justice may vote was on the bench, as proven by Justice Souter's voting record. Previous news reports and blogs have mentioned several potential candidates for vacant U.S. Supreme Court spots, including 7th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Diane P. Wood.

Neither professor could offer specific names as possible replacements for the justice, but Geyh said he wouldn't be surprised if a woman is selected. Whoever Obama selects, Geyh expects the Republicans will try to say the candidate is a liberal and challenge the nominee.

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