Anthony Kennedy retiring, giving Trump opening to reshape Supreme Court
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced on Wednesday that he will retire, unleashing an epic political battle to replace him that could allow President Donald Trump to shift the court to the right for a generation to come.
The departure of the 81-year-old Kennedy from his post after more than three decades has the potential to radically reshape the court on issues such as abortion, affirmative action and gay rights, where Kennedy has served as a swing vote.
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“It has been the greatest honor and privilege to serve our nation in the federal judiciary for 43 years, 30 of those years on the Supreme Court,” Kennedy said in a statement. He said that he wanted to spend more time with his family and that his decision would be effective July 31.
His exit is expected to create a furious fight in the Senate over his replacement, and it could thrust the often overlooked issue of judicial selection to the forefront in close Senate races in this year’s midterms.
Trump told reporters Wednesday that Kennedy, whom he said has “been a great justice of the Supreme Court,” had come to the White House earlier in the day to inform him of his retirement plans. Trump said he asked Kennedy for recommendations as to his replacement but did not say how the retiring justice responded.
The president pledged that his pick for Kennedy’s successor would come from lists of potential nominees he already circulated, starting during the 2016 election, when he campaigned on a promise to fill the seat formerly held by Justice Antonin Scalia with another conservative judge. The replacement process will “begin immediately,” Trump said, adding, “hopefully, we will pick someone who is just as outstanding.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who in 2016 refused to allow a vote on then-President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill Scalia’s seat, saying voters should get a say at the ballot box — said Wednesday that the Senate would vote this fall on Kennedy’s replacement, before lawmakers elected in November’s midterms are sworn in.
Senate Republicans lined up in support of filling Kennedy’s seat quickly. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a frequent critic of the president who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that “the Senate ought to spend August and September confirming the next Justice.”
Democrats, though, called McConnell a hypocrite for changing his stance from 2016. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called the majority leader’s move “absolute hypocrisy,” and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) all expressed similar sentiments.
“Our Republican colleagues in the Senate should follow the rule they set in 2016, not to consider a Supreme Court justice in an election year,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor. “Anything but that would be the absolute height of hypocrisy.”
Nominated to the court by President Ronald Reagan after the Senate rejected the more conservative Robert Bork, Kennedy grew to become the swing vote on the court, voting with its more liberal wing on landmark cases that upheld abortion rights and authoring the court’s decisions in multiple cases on gay rights, including 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the court ruled that same-sex couples have the Constitutional right to marry.
He famously sided with the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 ruling that affirmed the constitutional right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade. Trump, like many conservatives, has voiced a desire to see Roe overturned.
But Kennedy has also swung key cases toward the conservatives as well, including notably in Citizens United v. FEC, a 5-4 decision in which the court ruled that government limits on political spending by individuals and organizations constituted a violation of the right to free speech. Of the 17 5-4 decisions handed down by the court in its most recent term, 14 were split along ideological lines, according to Mother Jones. In all 14, Kennedy sided with the court’s conservative wing.
Still, Kennedy’s retirement came as a blow to many Democrats, and cries of “Oh” and “Oh, my God” punctuated a call between members of the Democratic National Committee’s rules and bylaws panel as the news broke Wednesday.