Judge, 85, to quit Supreme Court

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JUSTICE Harry Blackmun, author of the historic 1973 ruling guaranteeing American women the right to an abortion, announced his retirement from the Supreme Court yesterday, offering President Clinton another opportunity to chip away at conservative domination of the highest US court.

At Justice Blackmun's departure itself, there was little surprise. Although he had hinted he might stay on, he was, at 85, the oldest member of the court. A wry valedictory performance alongside a regretful President in the White House refuted any hint of the 'unacceptable senility' Blackmun once joked would determine his going. But of late he has seemed tired in his appearances on

the bench.

In a letter to the President, he said he intended to step down formally when the 1993/1994 court year ends in June, allowing Mr Clinton time to choose a successor before a new term begins in October. The White House will wait before making a decision, but a short-list of likely contenders is already doing the rounds. Whoever is picked, the court's outward complexion will not greatly change. Justice Blackmun (widely regarded as a conservative when appointed by President Nixon in 1970) finished his days as the court's leading liberal. His replacement will probably be cut from similar cloth: Mr Clinton has already made clear he will not name a judge opposed to abortion rights.

The early favourite is the outgoing Senate majority leader George Mitchell, once a federal judge. That choice could do much for the President's wobbly political fortunes.

Whoever is chosen will not upset the rough balance in the nine- person Supreme Court, consisting of three conservatives headed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a more moderate bloc which holds the balance, and two liberals, Justice Blackmun and Justice John Paul Stevens. A skilful newcomer might knit together a centre-left coalition that would tilt the balance from the conservatives.

For the moment, Washington is pausing to pay tribute to Justice Blackmun, a modest, Minnesotan for whom the 1973 Roe vs Wade judgment has ensured a niche in legal history. In February Justice Blackmun announced his opposition to the death penalty at a time when the court is trying to hasten the pace of executions. Such is the culmination of what most see as a leftward journey. Blackmun does not agree. He once said: 'It's not that I've moved to the left. The court has shifted to the right.'