Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is giving interviews and advising us that he will be departing during Obama’s term. Although Justices often time their departures to coincide with a president whom they imagine would nominate a like-minded justice, none has been so bold as Stevens to directly proclaim that as his rationale. The only question is when exactly he’ll pack it in. He suggested in Sunday interviews with the New York Times and Washington Post that he might have another year to go, but why then give the retirement-predicting interviews now?
Sen. Arlen Specter, who may speak for no one other than Arlen Specter, suggested that it would be best to wait a year. He proclaimed: “I think the gridlock in the Senate might well produce a filibuster which would tie up the Senate about a Supreme Court nominee. I think if a year passes, there’s a much better chance we could come to a consensus.” Well, that might be desirable for Specter, who faces a dicey reelection and might not want to be caught up in a contentious Supreme Court fight. But the Democrats are almost certain to lose Senate seats this year — perhaps a great many — so it seems that waiting a year makes confirmation of an Obama nominee less, not more, certain.
What we do know is that Stevens’ retirement is unlikely to have much of an impact on the outcome of many of the Court’s decisions. The irascible and often quirky liberal will be replaced by another liberal, and the Court’s 5-4 split on most tough cases is likely to endure. It also seems that Obama, to some extent, learned his lesson with the not-very-wise-at-all Sonia Sotomayor, who was selected for diversity or empathy reasons, the president boasted. The suggested short list of nominees — Solicitor General Elena Kagan (former dean of Harvard Law School), Judge Diane Wood of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — are indisputably smart, capable, and qualified. They are there because they will be solidly dependable liberal votes and advance those arguments with intellectual vigor. They may not be the ideal justices conservatives would have in mind, but this — losing Supreme Court seats — is what comes from losing the presidency.