Justice Kennedy to retire, Trump has chance to reshape US high court

WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) - 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 make the court more firmly conservative.

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. A traditional conservative, he advanced gay rights, buttressed abortion rights and erased political spending limits.

His retirement, which takes effect on July 31, gives Trump a second Supreme Court appointment in his 17 months in office after the Republican president last year selected Neil Gorsuch, who has already become one of the most conservative justices.

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy is seen during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House April 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day Gorsuch, 49, was sworn in as the 113th Associate Justice in a private ceremony at the Supreme Court. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
Justices of the US Supreme Court sit for their official group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2017. Seated (L-R): Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony M. Kennedy, Chief Justice of the US John G. Roberts, Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer. Standing (L-R): Associate Justices Elena Kagan, Samuel Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy and Neil Gorsuch are seen during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House April 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day Gorsuch, 49, was sworn in as the 113th Associate Justice in a private ceremony at the Supreme Court. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, left, embraces Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy after taking the oath of office during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, April 10, 2017. U.S. President Donald Trump said Gorsuch is 'deeply faithful to the Constitution' in the beginning of his speech at the start of the ceremony. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers remarks before administering the judicial oath to Judge Neil Gorsuch during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House April 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day Gorsuch, 49, was sworn in as the 113th Associate Justice in a private ceremony at the Supreme Court. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 28: President Donald Trump greets Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy after addressing a joint session of Congress in the Capitol's House Chamber, February 28, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and John Roberts arrive on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 20: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy arrives for the funeral of fellow Associate Justice Antonin Scalia at the the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception February 20, 2016 in Washington, DC. Scalia, who died February 13 while on a hunting trip in Texas, layed in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court on Friday and his funeral service will be at the basillica today. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 19: Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, left, Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Anthony M. Kennedy react during prayers at a private ceremony in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court where late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia lies in repose on February 19, 2016 in Washington, DC. Justice Scalia will lie in repose in the Great Hall of the high court where visitors will pay their respects. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin - Pool/Getty Images)
US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (L) and Justices Anthony Kennedy (2nd L), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (C), Stephen Breyer (2nd R) and Sonia Sotomayor listen to US President Barack Obama deliver the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 12, 2016. Obama gives his final State of the Union address, perhaps the last opportunity of his presidency to sway a national audience and frame the 2016 election. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 24: Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, left, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, attend an address by Pope Francis to a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber of the Capitol, September 24, 2015. Francis is the first pope to ever address Congress. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy listens to opening statements during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 23, 2015. Sprinting toward their spring recess, the House and Senate will separately consider budget blueprints, perhaps leading to the first joint congressional budget in six years. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. Supreme Court Justices (L-R) John G. Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor stand before the State of the Union address by President Barack Obama on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. (Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer, left, and Anthony Kennedy testify during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 23, 2015. Sprinting toward their spring recess, the House and Senate will separately consider budget blueprints, perhaps leading to the first joint congressional budget in six years. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Kennedy, mild-mannered and professorial, 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 for the lifetime appointment 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 previously served as a federal appeals court judge in California.

Trump said he would begin the selection process with a list of 25 conservative candidates.

Trump's list was assembled with the input of conservative legal activists who also touted Gorsuch for the previous court vacancy. A person familiar with the White House nomination process said there were five front-runners on Trump's list.

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John Roberts, Chief Justice

Born: 1955

Joined Supreme Court: 2005

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is followed by Elena Kagan on her way to take the Judicial Oath to become the 112th US Supreme Court justice, in Washington on August 7, 2010. (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Born: 1933

Joined Supreme Court: 1993

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal

(Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Anthony Kennedy

Born: 1936

Joined Supreme Court: 1988

Appointed by: Ronald Reagan

Votes: Conservative/Center

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy listens to opening statements during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Clarence Thomas

Born: 1948

Joined Supreme Court: 1991

Appointed by: George H.W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas testifies during a hearing before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee April 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Stephen Breyer

Born: 1938

Joined Supreme Court: 1994

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal/Center

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at the Harvard University Institute of Politics John F. Kennedy School of Government John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on November 6, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Samuel Alito

Born: 1950

Joined Supreme Court: 2006

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito speaks during the Georgetown University Law Center's third annual Dean's Lecture to the Graduating Class in the Hart Auditorium in McDonough Hall February 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sonia Sotomayor

Born: 1954

Joined Supreme Court: 2009

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Sotomayor discusses her book 'My Beloved World' presented in association with Books and Books at Bank United Center on February 1, 2013 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/FilmMagic)

Elena Kagan

Born: 1960

Joined Supreme Court: 2010

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Elena Kagan speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit on October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch participates in taking a new family photo with his fellow justices at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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They are Brett Kavanaugh, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington; Thomas Hardiman of the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Raymond Kethledge of the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Amul Thapar, who Trump named to the 6th Circuit; and Amy Coney Barrett, who Trump named to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"He's been a great justice of the Supreme Court," Trump said of Kennedy, speaking to reporters in the White House Oval Office. "He's a man ... who has displayed tremendous vision, and tremendous heart, and he will be missed."

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.

Trump already has left an imprint on the court, restoring its 5-4 conservative majority with the appointment of Gorsuch after the Republicans in the Senate in 2016 refused to consider former Democratic President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland.

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.

MAJOR SOCIAL ISSUES

Without Kennedy on the bench, the high court could move to the right on major social issues including abortion, gay rights and the death penalty. Kennedy wrote the landmark 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and has backed limitations on the application of the death penalty.

Conservative activists have long dreamed of building a firmly conservative majority on the court that would push to overturn the landmark 1973 ruling in the case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide.

Schumer said the Senate should reject any nominee from Trump who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade or undermine key healthcare protections.

Kennedy disappointed conservatives by joining Supreme Court decisions that affirmed the Roe decision, including a 1992 ruling in the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

The high court would take an even more dramatic ideological turn if one of the two liberal justices who have served on the court since the 1990s leaves the court, 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg or 79-year-old Stephen Breyer, and Trump was able to name a conservative replacement.

The Senate is controlled 51-49 by Trump's fellow Republicans, meaning that if they remain unified they can overcome any Democratic opposition like that mounted against Gorsuch. Senate Republicans changed the chamber's rules during the Gorsuch nomination battle to prevent Democrats from insisting on a 60-vote super-majority, allowing court nominees to win confirmation by a simple majority vote.

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.

Schumer said it would be "the absolute height of hypocrisy" for the Senate to move forward with confirming Trump's pick during an election year after using the 2016 election as the rationale for refusing to act on Obama's nominee, Garland.

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 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.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Bakini Brice and Andrew Chung; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Peter Cooney)

 

 

 

 

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