WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's oldest member and leader of its liberal bloc, is retiring. President Barack Obama now has his second high court opening to fill.
Stevens said Friday he will step down when the court finishes its work for the summer in late June or early July. He said he hopes his successor is confirmed "well in advance of the commencement of the court's next term."
His announcement, which had been hinted at for months, comes 11 days before his 90th birthday.
Stevens began signaling a possible retirement last summer when he hired just one of his usual complement of four law clerks for the next court term. He acknowledged in several interviews that he was contemplating stepping down and would certainly do so during Obama's presidency.
Chief Justice John Roberts said in a written statement that Stevens has earned the gratitude and admiration of the American people.
"He has enriched the lives of everyone at the Court through his intellect, independence, and warm grace," Roberts said.
Stevens informed Obama in a one-paragraph letter addressed to "My dear Mr. President." The court released the letter along with the chief justice's statement on a day when the court wasn't even in session.
Just before the court's announcement, Obama, en route back to Washington from a trip to Prague, had called a Friday afternoon Rose Garden statement, saying the subject would be a West Virginia mine accident.
The timing of Stevens' announcement leaves ample time for the White House to settle on a successor and Senate Democrats, who control 59 votes, to conduct confirmation hearings and a vote. Republicans have not ruled out an attempt to delay confirmation.
The leading candidates to replace Stevens are Solicitor General Elena Kagan, 49, and federal appellate Judges Merrick Garland, 57, and Diane Wood, 59.
During his tenure, Stevens was able to draw the support of the court's swing votes, now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Anthony Kennedy, to rein in or block some Bush administration policies, including the detention of suspected terrorists following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.