Stevens Retiring -- Ginsburg Next?

No surprise, but Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has reportedly made it official that he will retire at the end of this session, in early summer. Whoever the replacement is will probably not be quite as solidly liberal as Stevens has become, but certainly will maintain the current overall balance.

What I'm watching for is the other shoe to drop: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's retirement.

There was some rumoring about Ginsburg late last year, but I haven't heard anything since. But it would make sense: she is getting old, and has had health problems; she certainly wants to retire while a Democrat is President; and she presumably would prefer to give Obama a chance to pursue a nominee now, while Democrats still have 59 in the Senate, rather than next year, when they may have considerably fewer.

Again, replacing Ginsburg would not alter the basic balance of the court. But a double-opening could perhaps have a somewhat different result than single openings in successive years.

In 2005, Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement; George W. Bush nominated John Roberts to succeed her. But before the Senate acted on the confirmation, Chief Justice William Rhenquist died. Bush nominated Roberts to instead succeed Rhenquist as Chief Justice, and nominated Samuel Alito to replace O'Connor.

Roberts's confirmation was testy and high-profile; five Democrats on the Judiciary Committee voted against him, and the final vote was a relatively low 78-22. (That was when Republicans had 56 Senate seats.)

In the shadow of that battle, Scalia Alito -- a very, very conservative jurist -- sailed through with a unanimous vote.

Obviously that was a little different, with a Chief Justice position at stake. But it's not unlikely that, if there are two Obama nominees this summer, conservatives will choose to focus their attention on one, while the other might get a fairly easy ride.

Of course, the most important consequence of all this is that the Court will have two, and perhaps three, young left-of-center justices (Along with Sonia Sotomayor), who could potentially serve for many, many years -- counterbalancing Roberts, Scalia Alito, and Clarence Thomas, all of whom are relatively young. And, beyond the simple right/left dynamic, the court would presumably have three jurists who represent the judicial philosophy of a certain former Constitutional professor who now gets to choose the nominees.

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