Supreme Court Justice David Souter has told President Obama he will retire when the term ends in June, handing President Obama the chance to make the first Democratic appointment to the high court in 15 years.
Obama said at a White House briefing he will seek a replacement who understands "the daily realities of people's lives." He said he will consult with members of both parties and wants the new justice to start when the court begins its new term in October.
Souter's resignation might not lead to a significant shift in the balance of the deeply divided Supreme Court because Obama would likely name someone who is at least as liberal as Souter. Yet Obama's opportunity for a lifetime appointment is bound to set off an intense, politically charged competition.
There is only one woman on the nine-member court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and there would likely be great pressure on Obama to name a woman. Ginsburg and retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor have both said they would like to see another woman on the bench. There also could be pressure to name the first Hispanic justice.
Souter, 69, was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. A former New Hampshire attorney general and state Supreme Court judge, Souter had been on a U.S. appeals court just three months when Bush selected him. John Sununu, Bush's chief of staff and the former governor of New Hampshire, predicted Souter would be a "home run" for conservatives. Rather, Souter has turned out to be a reliable vote for liberals.
He was one of the key votes in a 1992 decision upholding abortion rights. He has supported a high wall of separation between church and state. He dissented in Bush v. Gore, which helped ensure George W. Bush the White House in 2000.
In recent terms, the usually reserved Souter has been especially active on the bench. This week he was among the most aggressive questioners of a lawyer challenging the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
A Yankee with a dry sense of humor, Souter shuns most of the justices' social activities. In a March speech, he said he misses reading for enjoyment during the term. When the term starts, he said, "I undergo an annual intellectual lobotomy."
While he is not among the eldest justices on the bench (five others are over 70), he has always made clear that he does not enjoy life in Washington. At the end of the term, Souter, a bachelor, typically races out of town to his home in New Hampshire.
Among possible candidates who could be in the mix to replace him, based on their backgrounds, are Elena Kagan, a former dean of Harvard Law School whom Obama recently named as U.S. solicitor general, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, on the New York-based Second Circuit; Stanford University law professor Kathleen Sullivan; and Yale Law Dean Harold Koh, whom Obama has nominated to be legal adviser to the State Department.
Contributing: USA TODAY's David Jackson