U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ decision to hire only one law clerk for the coming term — and not the normal three or four — has fueled speculation on Capitol Hill about whether the 89-year-old jurist is planning to step aside and the effect another high court retirement would have on the Senate’s already busy fall schedule.
Stevens has typically hired all of his clerks for a coming term at once, but this year he is only hiring one — the number that retiring members of the court are allotted. The Associated Press first reported Stevens’ hiring decision earlier this week. If Stevens were to step down, he would be the second to do so since President Barack Obama took office. Justice David Souter retired in June and has since been replaced by Sonia Sotomayor.
Stevens, who was nominated to the court by Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975, is considered to be the leader of the court’s liberal wing. As the court’s oldest member, he has been the subject of retirement speculation for years. But Supreme Court retirements are difficult to forecast — justices usually keep such decisions close to the vest and rarely make public comments.
If Stevens does retire, many suggest the road to confirming his successor would likely track similarly to the confirmation process of Sotomayor earlier this year.
Senate aides in both parties speculated that Obama would return to the same list of candidates he vetted for Souter’s slot including U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Diane Wood and Cass Sunstein, Obama’s pick to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
Regardless of the candidates, a Stevens retirement this fall would likely throw the entire Senate’s schedule into chaos. Democratic leaders are struggling to find time to complete work on health care reform, climate change and the annual appropriations bills, and have already had to jettison until next year or beyond high-profile issues like immigration. What’s more, Supreme Court nominations rarely move quietly through the chamber, with both parties and advocacy organizations mounting aggressive campaigns for or against.