As numerous sources are now reporting, David Souter, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, will retire at the end of this year’s term.
The news came on the 101st day of Barack Obama’s presidency and adds one more difficult and weighty decision to the pile of woes—two wars, trillions of wealth lost, and a wee flu pandemic—already stacked before him. Of course this was predictable; at 69, Souter is not the oldest justice but has long made it clear he'd prefer private life to the bench. And as a member of the moderate-to-liberal wing of the court, the George H.W. Bush appointee had been—patriotically, I'd add—biding his time for a Democratic president to choose his successor.
As for handicapping the odds for various prominent liberal thinkers, Washington Conventional Wisdom places 7th Circuit Justice Diane Wood and 2nd Circuit Justice Sonya Sotomayor at the head of the list for a replacement. Both are well-regarded jurists who would also might restore some gender balance to the court. Dahlia Lithwick at SLATE has continually made a compelling case for why female judges are different and necessary. Other shortlisters are regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, former Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan (just named the first female solicitor general to the Supreme Court) and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Personally, I’d expect Obama to play it cool for a while (I’d hate to be Robert Gibbs this afternoon).
This stunning news also brings to mind a review I penned in the NEW YORK OBSERVER last summer, in the throes of Palin-mania, on Christopher Buckley’s latest book, “Supreme Courtship,” which begins:
Nothing raises the national temperature more than a VACANCY sign hanging from the colonnaded front of the Supreme Court.
That much is true. Buckley’s thinly veiled satire of the Harriet Miers debacle was certainly applicable to the firestorm surrounding Sarah Palin’s selection as a vice-presidential running mate—but seems even more relevant now that the fate of the court really is up in the air.
In the weeks and perhaps even months to come, politicians may feel an urge to preen and prejudge—and this may even provoke America's religious right into one last gasp for assertion over the beshambled Republican party—but Souter’s not leaving until the end of the summer, and the best move now at 1600 Pennsylvania is, of course, to stay calm. Our president seems to be good at that.
MORE: Read Sherrilyn Ifill on "Who the Court Needs Now."
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