WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice David Souter has advised the White House that he plans to retire, according to published news reports.
The retirement of the 69-year-old Souter will give President Barack Obama his first opportunity to put a stamp on the nine-member court, which remains closely divided between its conservative and liberal wings.
Souter, though appointed 19 years ago by Republican George H.W. Bush, has generally fallen into the more liberal camp. An appellate court judge who wasn't well known nationally at the time of his Supreme Court appointment, Souter has remained personally enigmatic even as he tried to underscore his own personal sympathies.
"Whatever court we are in, whatever we are doing, whether we are on a trial court or an appellate court, at the end of our task some human being is going to be affected," Souter said at his 1990 Senate confirmation hearing. "Some human life is going to be changed in some way by what we do."
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NPR reported late Thursday that Souter planned to retire at the end of the court's 2008-2009 term, which expires when the last opinions are issued at the end of June. Supreme Court and White House officials couldn't be reached late Thursday to confirm the report.
The decision immediately casts light on who Obama might nominate. With Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who recently underwent cancer surgery, currently the only woman on the court, considerable speculation has circulated over the possibility that Obama will appoint another woman.
Potential candidates commonly mentioned include Sonia Sotomayor, who's on the New York-based Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Elena Kagan, the former dean of the Harvard Law School and newly confirmed as Obama's solicitor general, also has been frequently cited as a potential court nominee, as has former Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan.
Souter, a bookish Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law School graduate, has never hidden his preference for his native New Hampshire over the A-list social life of the nation's capital. Rumors of a pending retirement have circulated annually for the past several years, and accelerated this year because he had not yet completed hiring his clerks for the court's next term, which starts in October.
Souter was in the majority in 66 percent of the court's divided opinions last term, according to statistics compiled by Scotusblog. Although this sounds high, it put him near the bottom of all justices.
Although not generally renowned as a writer of far-reaching opinions, nor as a literary stylist, Souter has placed his mark on the law. Last term, for instance, he wrote the majority opinion in a closely watched case dismissing as excessive a multibillion-dollar fine levied against Exxon for a 1989 oil spill in Alaska.
Souter, an only child raised in rural New Hampshire, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College and from Harvard Law School. His longtime political mentor was former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, who'd preceded Souter as New Hampshire's attorney general and then helped him land positions on the state's Supreme Court and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.
Modest in demeanor, Souter can be persistent during the court's oral arguments, pressing home questions until he gets an answer and occasionally showing flashes of impatience.
He's known for his own conservative lifestyle, reportedly favoring fountain pens and shunning cell phones and television, and he's been among the staunchest opponents of allowing live television coverage of the court's oral arguments.
"I can tell you the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body," Souter once said, famously.
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