It was a classic John Paul Stevens tactic: wait until the closing seconds and then ask a lawyer a pointed question.
The 90-year-old justice employed it for the last time Wednesday as he sat through the final high court arguments of his 35-year career.
Stevens has announced his retirement this summer. He will continue to appear with the court through June, issuing and writing opinions on cases that were argued last year and earlier this year.
But Wednesday's arguments — over whether the name of petition signers who wanted to overturn Washington state's domestic partnership law should be made public — was his last chance to interact with lawyers appearing before the court.
Known as a gentle but pointed interrogator, the bespectacled Stevens has heard more than 3,500 arguments from lawyers in the Supreme Court's courtroom. So as is his custom, Stevens — wearing his usual bow tie — rocked back and forth in his chair for most of the arguments.
He watched silently as lawyer James Bopp Jr. argued that the state's position was that the names should be disclosed so the public can ensure that there is no fraud. But as Bopp was preparing to wrap up, Stevens cleared his throat and leaned forward.
"Isn't there another possible public interest? Would it be legitimate public interest to say, 'I would like to know who signed the petition, because I would like to try to persuade them that their views should be modified?' Is there public interest in encouraging debate on the underlying issue?" Stevens said.
"Well, it's possible, but we think this information is marginal," Bopp said.
Signing a referendum petition does identify people who have certain point of view, Stevens replied. "And if you have the other point of view, don't you have an interest in finding out who you would like to convince to change their minds?" he said.
President Barack Obama has said he hopes to have Stevens' replacement confirmed before the court's new term begins in October.