Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said on Wednesday that he plans to retire after three decades as a pivotal vote on the highest US judicial body, giving President Donald Trump an opportunity to make the court more firmly conservative.
The conservative Kennedy, who turns 82 next month and is the second-oldest justice on the nine-member court, has become one of the most consequential American jurists since joining the court in 1988 as an appointee of Republican president Ronald Reagan. He proved instrumental in advancing gay rights, buttressing abortion rights and erasing political spending limits. His retirement takes effect on July 31, the court said.
“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.
The statement issued by the court said that his decision was motivated by his decision to spend more time with his family.
Mr Kennedy is a traditional conservative who sometimes joined the liberal justices on key rulings, earning a reputation as the court’s "swing" vote who heartened conservatives and liberals alike, depending on the issue. Mr Kennedy on Tuesday joined the court’s four other conservatives in giving the president a huge legal victory by upholding the Republican president’s travel ban targeting people from several Muslim-majority countries.
His decision was disclosed on the final day of the court’s current term, which began in October. On Wednesday, he joined his fellow conservative justices in a 5-4 ruling that dealt a major setback to organised labour by shutting off a key union revenue source.
Mr Trump on Wednesday said that Kennedy had great vision and heart. The president said he will begin a search immediately for a new justice, with a list of 25 candidates. The Republican-led Senate can be expected to push to have the new nominee confirmed and on the court before the justices begin their next term in October.
The president already has left an imprint on the court, restoring its 5-4 conservative majority with the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch last year after the president’s fellow Republicans in the Senate in 2016 refused to consider Democratic former president Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.
While Mr Kennedy’s replacement will not change the numerical ideological balance on the court, Trump could appoint a justice who would be more staunchly conservative than Kennedy and less likely to occasionally side with the court’s liberal wing.