Video: Supreme Court Justice Stevens to retire?

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    >> could come to a consensus.

    >> diane murray amon is director of the california international law center at the uc davis school of law and a former stevens law clerk and writing a biography on him. simple question for you. all of these interviews that he gives which he rarely does, should we all be reading tea leaves and assuming this is setting up a retirement announcement in the next couple of weeks.

    >> you certainly all are reading the tea leaves . i think that the justice is considering whether to retire and i think that he's trying to xwers a little bit of control over the situation perhaps different and that justice souter 's retirement last year which was leaked and followed by announcement. justice stevens is having some ability to manage the news this time i'd say.

    >> you heard what senator specter just said. a democrat who's hoping he would be able to hang on for one more year because he thinks the political climate would be more con deuce i be to a confirmation hearing. is that something you think justice stevens , your old boss, would take into consideration?

    >> well, i think that the justice has always said that he would retire when he will felt it was appropriate, when he wasn't enjoying doing the job anymore. i think that those personal concerns will probably be foremost in his mind.

    >> how important is the makeup of the court to him? i mean it, sounds like not only is he talking out loud about when he is going to go, but do you get the sense that he's also behind the scenes trying to give some advice to the obama administration and make sure that a replacement is in the same sort of ideological makeup as justice stevens ?

    >> well, i think given the ideological makeup of the president, we can pretty much predict what the next justice's predilections would be. i think that justice stevens has said that he is quite comfortable with the idea of president obama selecting his replacement. i think the fact that both of them are former part-time law professors at the university of chicago and former hyde park residents probably makes them feel a special affinity to this president.

    >> how do you think his leaving, whether it's this year or the next, would affect the court , not just in terms of the ideological makeup of the court , particularly if you assume that the president will put somebody who's progressive as he is, but just the fact that he is the senior most associate justice , he's the i believe he reads -- writes the draft of the opinions. how might the operation of the court change?

    >> well, savannah, i think that he has really shown himself to be a leader on the court in the last several years, perhaps the last decade. and anytime you see someone leave the court who has a major leadership role that causes a shift on the court , even if the raw votes don't change, the fact that he has been a justice for 35 years now has an incredible institutional memory and has worked very closely with his colleagues and has really led his wing of the court , all of those considerations suggest that even if the raw votes didn't change, there would be a genuine change in the way that the court goes about its business.

    >> what have you learned in talking with justice stevens about who of the other, if we assume sort of this wing of the court that he leads is four strong with justice ginsburg , justice breyer , justice sotomayor. of those three who, does he think could take the leadership role? do you feel like you have an insight on that?

    >> i honestly don't, chuck. he and i haven't talked about that and i'm not sure i would be able to reveal it if we had. it will be interesting to see. the -- next senior justice i believe would be justice ginsburg .

    >> on the liberal wing, yes.

    >> that's right. and i think we haven't really got a feel yet for how that group would come together. just as i think until justice blackman left the court it wasn't apparent from the outside that justice stevens had built a persona as a coalition builder on the court . so sometimes you have to wait for those things to turn out before you can actually see what's happening on the outside.

    >> well, it's fascinating think about it. it 's wonderful to have your perspective, professor ammon. thank you so much. we appreciate it.

updated 4/5/2010 4:57:20 PM ET 2010-04-05T20:57:20

Two experienced federal judges and the Obama administration's top Supreme Court lawyer are widely considered the leading candidates for the next high court opening if Justice John Paul Stevens retires this year.

Stevens, 89, is expected to decide soon whether to step down after more than 34 years on the court. If he does, President Barack Obama would have his second high court pick in as many years.

Whenever an announcement comes, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday, "We'll be ready."

Two of the three top contenders, Judge Diane Wood, 59, of the federal appeals court in Chicago and Solicitor General Elena Kagan, 49, were finalists last year when Obama chose Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter.

Judge Merrick Garland, 57, of the federal appeals court in Washington, is a former high-ranking Justice Department official who is well respected and considered least likely to engender significant Republican opposition.

The three high court prospects have different strengths and weaknesses. But even conservative activists say any of the three would likely win confirmation in a Senate in which Democrats control 59 seats. Yet Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona said Sunday he would not rule out delaying tactics if Obama nominates "an overly ideological person."

A fight over a second Obama Supreme Court nominee could rev up both Democratic and Republican fundraising machines for the November election, even though Stevens' replacement by a liberal-leaning justice would not alter the court's ideological balance.

A new justice, however, would be hard pressed to immediately replicate Stevens' success in forging majorities by winning the votes of Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, now retired, and Anthony Kennedy, in high-profile cases ranging from abortion to the rights of detainees at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

The president's choice, whether it is one of these three or someone else, could depend on several factors, including how much political energy he wants to expend, particularly in advance of congressional elections.

On the other hand, with Democrats widely expected to lose Senate seats in November, Obama might be willing to push for a more controversial nominee now because confirmations likely will only get harder next year.

Among other considerations:

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—Does Obama want to name another woman, or a member of an ethnic or racial minority?

—Would it matter to him, or anyone else, if the court were made up entirely of Catholics and Jews? Stevens is the only Protestant on the court now, and both Garland and Kagan are Jewish.

—If a president's Supreme Court choices help shape his legacy, would he favor Kagan, the youngest of the three?

—Does Wood, raised and educated in Texas, have an edge because she would replace Stevens, a Northwestern University law graduate, as the only justice without an Ivy League pedigree?

If the president is casting a wider net, two Democratic governors — Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts — also could be considered.

Video: Maddow takes on the Beltway crowd Because so little time has passed since last year's selection and confirmation of Sotomayor, both the White House and its political opponents are going over well-worn ground in evaluating Kagan and Wood.

Obama interviewed them both before settling on Sotomayor.

Wood has a paper trail of opinions that appears most likely to generate sustained opposition from Senate Republicans and conservative interest groups. Even as she was being considered last year, conservatives cited her opinion in a 2001 case that went against anti-abortion protesters who wanted to blockade clinics. The Supreme Court reversed the ruling.

But Wood also has served for 15 years as a judge on the same court as two prominent conservatives, Judges Frank Easterbrook and Richard Posner. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is noted for its collegiality, despite ideological divisions, a point that could appeal to Obama.

Stevens also served on the same appeals court before President Gerald Ford nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1975.

Obama made Kagan the first woman to serve as solicitor general. Thurgood Marshall is the most recent of several justices who served in that role before joining the Supreme Court.

Kagan, who has never been a judge, has made a half-dozen arguments in front of the justices in the past year.

As the first woman dean of the Harvard Law School, Kagan won a reputation for hiring prominent conservative legal scholars and bridging disagreements between liberal and conservative faculty members.

Yet 31 Republican senators voted against her confirmation as Solicitor General last year in what was seen as a warning to Obama should he want to put her on the Supreme Court.

Kagan would likely face questions over her objections to campus military recruiters at Harvard, stemming from her disagreement with U.S. policy on gays serving in the military.

Like Stevens, Garland was born in Chicago. He has been a federal judge since 1997, including serving for two years with John Roberts before he became chief justice. Garland and Roberts also served as young law clerks for the same appeals court judge in New York, Henry Friendly.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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