On the same day the nation’s highest court announced it had concluded its business for this session, the 81-year-old – frequently a swing voter in some of its most historic rulings – said he was to retire after 30 years service.
“It has been the greatest honour and privilege to serve our nation in the federal judiciary for 43 years, 30 of those years on the Supreme Court,” Mr Kennedy said in a statement.
Appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1988, legal experts said he had played a central role in pushing forward a wide variety of issues. While he had promoted LGBTQ rights and a woman’s right to a legal abortion, he had also been crucial to a 2010 ruling that erased political spending limits.
“For a member of the legal profession, it is the highest of honours to serve on this court,” he wrote.
“Please permit me in this letter to express my profound gratitude for having had the privilege to see in each case how to best to know, interpret, and defend the Constitution, and the laws that must always conform to its mandates and promises.”
Mr Trump, who delighted conservatives when one of the first things he did after entering the White House last year was to nominate and then push through the appointment of conservative justice Neil Gorsuch, told reporters he would be launching a search for Mr Kennedy’s replacement immediately.
Speaking during an Oval Office meeting with Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the president said he would draw from a list of 25 potential court candidates that his campaign had assembled during his presidential run.
It is all but unthinkable Mr Trump will not opt for another conservative, a move that will lead to the creation of a bench with a solid conservative majority.
Mr Trump said Mr Kennedy, who studied at Harvard Law School, had been “a great justice of the Supreme Court”. “Hopefully we will pick someone who is just as outstanding,” he said.
He said officials would now begin the task of identifying candidates from the list of 25 names that had been previously released. “It will be somebody from that list,” Mr Trump said, saying Mr Kennedy had “displayed great vision” and “tremendous heart”.
The Associated Press said in the meantime, the court will be split between four liberal justices who were appointed by Democratic presidents and four conservatives named by Republicans.
Mr Trump’s nominee is likely to give the conservatives a solid majority and will face a Senate process in which while Republicans only hold the slimmest of majorities, Democrats cannot delay confirmation, the AP said.
Mr Trump’s first high court nominee, Mr Gorsuch, was confirmed in April 2017. If past practice is any indication, Mr Trump will name a nominee within weeks, setting in motion a process that could allow confirmation of a new justice by early August – a move that will help the Republicans with their base ahead of November’s midterm elections.
Writing on the well-respected SCOTUS blog, Amy Howe said the decision by the 81-year-old justice, was “all but certain to kick off a pitched confirmation battle because of the possibility that his successor could move the court significantly to the right on a number of those issues”.
She added: “In recent years, Kennedy has sided with the court’s four more liberal justices on a wide variety of other issues, ranging from the death penalty and the Sixth Amendment to redistricting and the Fair Housing Act. Kennedy’s successor could play a central role in determining the direction of these areas of the law as well, and we can expect whomever Trump nominates to face persistent questioning about his or her views on these subjects.”
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just spoke on the Senate floor and addressed Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s just-announced retirement.
“First and foremost, I want to pause and express our gratitude for the extraordinary service that justice Kennedy has offered our nation. He served on the federal bench for 43 years,” Mr McConnell said.
He added, “In particular we owe him a debt of thanks for his ardent defence of the first amendment and first amendment’s right to political speech. As justice Kennedy concludes his continue you’re on the court, we wish him, his wife and their family every happiness in the years ahead.
“The Senate stands ready to fulfil its constitutional role by offering advice and consent on President Trump’s nominee to fill this vacancy. We will vote to confirm Justice Kennedy’s successor this fall.”
Mr Trump’s list of 25 candidates contains 24 judges and Utah senator Mike Lee. Prominent on that list are Judges Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania and William Pryor of Alabama, seriously considered for the seat eventually filled by Mr Gorsuch, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who serves on the federal appeals court in Washington, DC.
Reports suggest Mr Kavanaugh is a longtime Washington insider, having served as a law clerk to Mr Kennedy and then as a key member of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s team that produced the report that served as the basis for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
In October, Mr Kavanaugh dissented when his court ruled that an undocumented teen in federal custody should be able to obtain an abortion immediately.
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said Mr Trump’s previous list of candidates was not acceptable. “Americans should make it clear they will not tolerate any nominee from Trump’s earlier list,” he said.
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