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Stevens and April’s drama

April may turn out to be a time of high drama at the Supreme Court, even if nothing of great significance happens on the bench.  On Tuesday, April 20, when the Court gathers to hear a case involving a fairly minor procedural point of criminal law, Justice John Paul Stevens will be celebrating his 90th birthday.  He will thus become the second oldest Justice ever to have served (Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes sat until he was 90 and 10 months; he retired on January 12, 1932).

But, April, it now appears, could also be the month when Justice Stevens makes up his mind whether to retire this year, or to go on serving.  In an interview apparently held on March 8, Stevens told a magazine reporter that he would make up his mind in about a month.  “I’ll have to decide soon,” he was quoted as saying. (The reporter, Jeffrey Toobin of New Yorker Magazine, has this lengthy article on Stevens’ career in the March 22 edition.)

Stevens might not make any public announcement of his plan until after the Court has completed hearing arguments for the Term; that will be on April 28.  If he should notify the White House that he is retiring, that fact almost certainly would leak out promptly, so the news might not wait until Stevens made a formal statement himself.  In the meantime, he is likely to keep his own counsel on the issue.

In the interview with Toobin, Stevens confirmed word that had been circulating in Washington that he had made a contingent arrangement with clerks to continue serving for another Term if he should decide to stay on beyond the current one.  Here is what the article says on that point:

“Well, I still have my options open…When I decided to just hire one clerk, three of my four clerks last year said they’d work for me next year if I wanted them to.  So I have my options still.  And then I’ll have to decide soon.”  The comment about making up his mind in about a month was not a direct quote, but was a paraphrase.

There was a strong hint in the article that Stevens is definitely thinking of retiring while President Obama is in office.  Speaking of his admiration for the President, Stevens was quoted as adding: “You can say I will retire within the next three years.  I’m sure of that.”   When asked if it mattered to him which President would name his replacement, his quoted response was: “I’d rather not answer that.”  He said he regarded Obama as being “capable of picking successfully, you know, doing a good job of filling vacancies.”

As to his age and long tenure on the bench, the Justice was quoted as saying “I’ve never felt any interest in trying to break any records.”  He is now the third longest-serving Justice in history, behind William O. Douglas and Stephen J. Field.  Stevens would have to serve beyond the current Term, into August, to pass Field’s mark.  He would have to serve beyond July 2012 to pass Douglas’ record.