President Obama interrupted the White House press briefing this afternoon to confirm that Justice David Souter called to share his decision to retire from the Supreme Court.
In a letter to the president, Souter wrote that he intends to retire when the court recesses in June.
Obama said he is "incredibly grateful" for Souter's "dedicated service," and praised him for having "shown what it means to be a fair-minded and independent judge."
Souter's announcement apparently did not catch the president off guard, as administration sources told ABC News today that officials have been preparing for a Supreme Court vacancy since just a few weeks after the election.
A group of officials began work shortly after Obama's victory to identify candidates for vacancies in the appellate court as well as the highest court in the land, anticipating that there would be a vacancy in the Supreme Court this term.
Souter, Obama said, "consistently defied labels and rejected absolutes, focusing instead on just one task: reaching a just result in the case that was before him."
As for selecting Souter's replacement, Obama said it "is among my most serious responsibilities as president," and that he intends to consult with both Republicans and Democrats during the process.
"I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity," Obama told the gathered reporters. "I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book, it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives."
Obama said he views the quality of empathy, "of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."
"I will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law. Who honors our constitutional traditions. Who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role," Obama said.
Souter's decision to retire comes as a surprise to many, including some of his colleagues on the court. At least one justice learned of it from media reports.
At 69 years old, Souter's younger than five of his fellow justices, and 20 years younger than the oldest justice, John Paul Stevens. For the highest court in the United States, Souter's just hitting his prime.
Still, the clues have been there. Speculation started to swirl this spring because Souter, who usually waits to hire clerks during the summer, hadn't even started interviewing clerks for the next term.
He also famously hated the Washington, D.C. lifestyle, joking that his work on the court was a "sort of annual intellectual lobotomy." He much preferred his native New Hampshire, where he could sit by the fire in his drafty cabin and read his beloved books.
"He has a very strong sense of what he likes to spend his time doing, and hobnobbing isn't high on the list," said Meir Feder, one of Souter's clerks from the 1990 term.
Souter's retirement will give President Obama, himself a former law professor, his first chance to shape the court. Though it won't change the direction of the court, it gives Obama the chance to secure the seat for liberals for a generation.