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Top court justice Kennedy to retire

Wire and Staff Reports
June 27. 2018 10:48PM
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy arrives for President Donald Trump's address to a Joint Session of Congress in Washington on Feb. 28, 2017. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo)

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 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. 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.

The traditional conservative earned a reputation as the court’s “swing” vote who heartened conservatives and liberals alike, depending on the issue.

“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.

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.

“He will be missed but he will be retiring and we will begin our search for a new justice of the United States Supreme Court that will begin immediately and hopefully we’re going to pick somebody who will be as outstanding,” Trump said.

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.”

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.

New Hampshire’s Democratic delegation urged the President to nominate a “non-ideological candidate.”

“It’s important that whoever the President nominates to replace Justice Kennedy does not jeopardize progress on women’s reproductive, LGBTQ and civil rights,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said in a statement. “In particular, any nominee should uphold the precedent of Roe v. Wade. I will only support a nominee within the mainstream of judicial thought who will protect constitutional rights and freedoms.”

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

He 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.

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.

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;

• Amy Coney Barrett, who Trump named to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gorsuch already has demonstrated that he is one of the most conservative members of the court, aligning himself with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

The high court would take an even more dramatic ideological turn if one of the two liberal justices who have served 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 replacement.

Lawrence Hurley of Reuters contributed to this report.

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