WASHINGTON — Justice Anthony Kennedy said he was stepping down from the Supreme Court, giving President Donald Trump a chance to nominate another judge to the high court.
It’s likely to ignite another major battle over Trump’s chosen successor, although Republicans will be able to secure his confirmation with a simple Senate majority. Under threat of a Democratic filibuster of Neil Gorsuch, the GOP abandoned Senate rules to win confirmation with less than a 60-vote threshold.
Kennedy, nominated by President Ronald Reagan, has been on the court since 1987. Although he has been largely siding with conservatives this term, he has been regarded as a potential swing vote in a number of cases. He wrote the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country, and also sided with LGBT groups in other marriage equality cases.
“For a member of the legal profession it is the highest of honors to serve on this Court,” Kennedy wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump. “Please permit me by this letter to express my profound gratitude for having had the privilege to seek in each case how best to know, interpret and defend the Constitution and the laws that must always conform to its mandates and promises.”
His retirement is effective on July 31.
On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that they would vote this fall on Kennedy’s replacement.
“It’s imperative that the president’s nominee be considered fairly and not subjected to personal attacks,” McConnell said.
A Trump appointment that swings the court rightward will likely pose a threat to Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 case that restricted states from banning abortion.
Trump told reporters that he will pick Kennedy’s successor from a list
of about two dozen candidates, the same one that he used to select Gorsuch.
He called Kennedy a “great justice,” and said that the process for nominating a successor will begin “immediately.”
Trump said that he learned about Kennedy’s retirement early in the afternoon on Wednesday, when Kennedy came to meet with him. After 30 minutes, he said that he asked Kennedy if he had any recommendations for a replacement, but Trump did not say whether Kennedy gave a name.
He got his first chance to nominate a justice just weeks after taking office. After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, 2016, McConnell refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, letting that nomination lapse. At the time, McConnell said it was too close to the election and that voters should have a chance to weigh in. Democrats already are pointing out McConnell’s contradiction — wanting a vote on Kennedy’s successor with midterms approaching but refusing one on Scalia’s replacement during the 2016 presidential race.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called Kennedy’s retirement “the most important Supreme Court vacancy for this country in at least a generation. Nothing less than the fate of our health care system, reproductive rights for women, and countless other protections for middle class Americans are at stake.”
He called on McConnell to hold off on a vote on a nominee until after the midterms.
“Anything but that would be the absolute height of hypocrisy,” Schumer said.