White House Prepares for Possibility of 2 Supreme Court Vacancies

Lawyers for President Obama have been working behind the scenes to prepare for the possibility of one, and maybe two Supreme Court vacancies this spring.

Court watchers believe two of the more liberal members of the court, justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could decide to step aside for reasons of age and health. That would give the president his second and third chance to shape his legacy on the Supreme Court.

Last week, when Obama took the nearly unprecedented step of criticizing the court's opinion in a major campaign finance case during his State of the Union speech, some believed he was showcasing for the American people that presidential elections, and Supreme Court nominations count.

"With all due deference to separation of powers," the president said, " last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities."

Doug Kendall, of the progressive Constitutional Accountability Center, said the president's message was clear: "President Obama's spirited reaction to Citizens United at the State of the Union indicates he fully understands the importance of the federal judiciary and the ability of the Supreme Court to stand in the way of his administration's agenda."

Kendall hopes Obama's dressing down of the majority will translate into greater attention to the judicial nomination and confirmation process.

Although five of the six justices who attended the speech sat poker faced when Obama made his comments, Justice Samuel Alito, who voted with the majority, reacted by shaking his head in irritation.

If a justice from the conservative block like Alito were to would retire, there could be a seismic shift on the court, likely giving Obama the chance to reverse the court's majority voting bloc. But speculation has centered on the liberal end of the bench.

Vacancies Could Spark Political Fire

It is widely believed that Justice Stevens, 89, sent a strong signal of his intention to retire when he confirmed for The Assoicated Press last fall that he hadn't hired a full complement of clerks for next term. The justice has been coy with the press, telling USA Today's Joan Biskupic that he was surprised by the media frenzy regarding his potential retirement.

"That can't be news" he said, declining to reveal his plans. "I'm not exactly a kid."

Justice Ginsburg, 76, announced a year ago that she had undergone surgery for early stage pancreatic cancer.

Sources close to Ginsburg dismissed retirement speculation, pointing out that she has been a lively and active participant in oral arguments this term and has on several occasions expressed an interest in serving for more years to come.

In a September press release from the court, Ginsburg revealed that she had had a "comprehensive assessment of health" last summer and that she was in "completely normal health with the exception of a low red blood cell count caused by deficiency of iron."

If one or both of the justices retire, the administration would have to calculate whether it could nominate candidates who could deliver votes as consistently liberal on major ideological issues as Stevens and Ginsburg do in an age of increasingly political confirmation wars.

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PHOTO: Jodie Foster and Alexandra Hedison attend the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Inaugural Gala presented by Salvatore Ferragamo at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Oct. 17, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Stefanie Keenan/Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts/Getty Images for Wallis Annenber