WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said on Wednesday he plans to retire after three decades as a pivotal vote on the highest U.S. judicial body, giving President Donald Trump an opportunity to nominate his replacement, the second opportunity in Trump’s first term.
Kennedy, who turns 82 in July and is the second-oldest justice on the nine-member court, has become one of the most consequential American jurists since joining the court in 1988 as an appointee of Republican President Ronald Reagan. He proved instrumental in advancing gay rights, buttressing abortion rights and erasing political spending limits. His retirement takes effect on July 31, the court said.
Kennedy, mild-mannered and professorial, is a traditional conservative who sometimes joined the liberal justices on key rulings, earning a reputation as the court’s “swing” vote who heartened conservatives and liberals alike, depending on the issue.
His retirement sets the stage for a major showdown in the Republican-led U.S. Senate over the confirmation of Trump’s eventual pick to replace Kennedy and the future direction of the Supreme Court — all coming before crucial November elections in which Democrats are seeking to seize control of Congress from Trump’s Republicans.
Illustrating the high stakes, top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer called it “the most important Supreme Court vacancy for this country in at least a generation.”
“It has been the greatest honor and privilege to serve our nation in the federal judiciary for 43 years, 30 of those years on the Supreme Court,” Kennedy said in a statement issued by the court that said his retirement was motivated by a desire to spend more time with his family.
“He is a man that I’ve known for a long time and a man that I’ve respected for a long time. He’s been a great justice of the Supreme Court. He’s a man … who has displayed tremendous vision, and tremendous heart, and he will be missed,” Trump told reporters in the White House Oval Office.
Trump said he would begin the selection process with a list of 25 conservative jurists. That list, assembled with the input of conservative legal activists, includes Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a former Kennedy law clerk who serves on the U.S. appeals court in Washington, as well as appeals court judges Amy Coney Barrett and Kevin Newsom, both appointed to their current positions by Trump.
Trump already has left an imprint on the court, restoring its 5-4 conservative majority with the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch last year after the president’s fellow Republicans in the Senate in 2016 refused to consider former Democratic President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.
While Kennedy’s replacement will not change the numerical ideological balance on the court, Trump could appoint a justice more staunchly conservative than Kennedy and less likely to occasionally side with the court’s liberal wing. The move could also mean that conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, as the most centrist of the court’s current conservatives, would become the decisive vote in certain cases.
While Kennedy sided with conservative colleagues on many issues and authored the landmark 2010 ruling that allowed unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns, his tenure also included support for key liberal causes.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said there would be a vote on Trump’s nominee “this fall,” but did not specify whether it would come before the court’s new term starts in October or before the November elections.
Kennedy’s retirement was disclosed on the final day of the court’s current term, which began in October.
Kennedy on Tuesday joined the court’s four other conservatives in giving Trump a huge legal victory by upholding the Republican president’s travel ban targeting people from several Muslim-majority countries. On Wednesday, he joined his fellow conservatives in a 5-4 ruling that dealt a major setback to organized labor by shutting off a key union revenue source.
Kennedy personally delivered his retirement letter to the White House on Wednesday afternoon, after he told his fellow justices of his plans at their afternoon conference.
Trump’s adviser for judicial nominations, Leonard Leo, said Trump’s list included some of the best judges in the United States. “I expect the nominee to be like Justice Gorsuch, to demonstrate excellence in every respect, and to earn widespread support from the American people, and bipartisan support for confirmation in the Senate,” Leo said.