Justice John Paul Stevens, 89, who served on the high court for a near record breaking 34 years, announced his retirement today, giving President Barack Obama his second chance to name a Supreme Court justice.
Obama today hailed Stevens as an "impartial guardian of the law."
"Justice Stevens has courageously served his country from the moment he enlisted the day before Pearl Harbor to his long and distinguished tenure on the Supreme Court," the president said. "During that tenure he has stood as an impartial guardian of the law. He's worn the judicial robe with honor and humility. He has applied the Constitution and the laws of the land with fidelity and restraint."
The announcement comes 11 days before Stevens' 90th birthday. When he turns 90, Stevens will be only the second Supreme Court Justice to pass such a milestone on the bench.
"Having concluded that it would be in the best interests of the Court to have my successor appointed and confirmed well in advance of the commencement of the Court's next Term, I shall retire from regular active service as an Associate Justice," Stevens wrote in a letter to the president, stating his retirement would be "effective the next day after the Court rises for the summer recess this year."
The last day of oral arguments is April 28 and the last day of the court will be sometime in the last week of June.
The departure of the soft spoken, unfailingly polite Midwesterner leaves the president under pressure to nominate a replacement who will deliver the same consistently liberal votes on the major social issues of the day.
Obama said he will "move quickly to name a nominee," adding that selecting a Supreme Court Justice is "one of my most serious responsibilities as president."
"Much like they did with Justice Sotomayor, I hope the Senate will move quickly in the coming weeks to debate and then confirm my nominee so that the new justice is seated in time for the fall term," he said.
White House officials say they are ready for this vacancy. President Obama will review the list of nominees and a decision is expected to be made "in the coming weeks." Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are hoping the president will name a replacement as soon as possible so they can start targeting hearing dates. Many say they want the process completed by the August recess but there is likely to be a partisan fight ahead, as was the case with the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor.
Chief Justice John Roberts praised Stevens, saying in a statement that Roberts has "enriched the lives of everyone at the Court through his intellect, independence, and warm grace. We have all been blessed to have John as our colleague and his wife Maryan as our friend."
Although nominated by Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975, Stevens became a hero to liberals voting to limit the use of the death penalty, uphold affirmative action, broaden the core holding of Roe v. Wade and argue for a strict separation of church and state.
But Stevens might be best known for his dissent in Bush v. Gore, the controversial Supreme Court decision that halted a recount of Florida ballots and cleared the way for George W. Bush to take the presidency.
"Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear," Stevens wrote. "It is the nation's confidence in the judge as the impartial guardian of the rule of law."