Souter to Exit Supreme Court, Launching Debate on Successor

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Supreme Court is about to have a vacancy. Justice David Souter served notice today that he plans to retire.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The news was splashed across today's front pages after National Public Radio broke the story last night.

This afternoon, Justice Souter confirmed it in a one-paragraph letter to the White House: He said he plans to step down this June, at the end of the court's current term.

Souter also telephoned President Obama, and the president walked in on his press secretary's regular briefing to make the formal announcement.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: The reason I am interrupting Robert is not because he's not doing a good job; he's doing an unbelievable job. But it's because I just got off the telephone with Justice Souter. And so I would like to say a few words about his decision to retire from the Supreme Court.

Throughout his two decades on the Supreme Court, Justice Souter has shown what it means to be a fair-minded and independent judge. He came to the bench with no particular ideology; he never sought to promote a political agenda.

KWAME HOLMAN: Souter has been on the court since 1990, after he was nominated by the first President Bush. He had served as New Hampshire's attorney general and as a federal appeals court judge.

JUSTICE DAVID SOUTER, U.S. Supreme Court: If it were possible for me to express to you the realization that I have of the honor which the president has just done me, I would try, and I would keep you here as long tonight as I had to do to get it out.

KWAME HOLMAN: At first, Souter was viewed as a moderate conservative. At his Senate confirmation hearings, then-Senator Joe Biden questioned him about abortion law.

JOSEPH BIDEN, Vice President of the United States: To ask you what principles you would employ does not in any way tell me how you would rule on a specific facts situation.

JUSTICE DAVID SOUTER: The particular action that you are referring to is one which falls within a broad concept of liberty. If liberty means what it is we can do if we want to do it, then, obviously, in that sense of your question, the answer is yes.

KWAME HOLMAN: Within two years, Souter joined in reaffirming the right to abortion. He went on to side mostly with the court's liberals. That included the 2000 Bush v. Gore presidential recount and the landmark terror case allowing detainees at Guantanamo Bay to take their cases to federal courts.

Despite his 19 years on the court, the 69-year-old Souter never warmed to life in Washington. He has said he had the best job in the world "in the world's worst city."

His departure gives President Obama his first chance to make a mark on the high court. This afternoon, he described the kind of individual he wants for the job.

BARACK OBAMA: I will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role. I will seek somebody who shares my respect for constitutional values on which this nation was founded and who brings a thoughtful understanding of how to apply them in our time.

KWAME HOLMAN: At the Capitol, a leading Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Orrin Hatch of Utah, voiced hope, but also concern.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), Utah: I just hope that the President Obama will appoint somebody who will observe the law and interpret the laws that are made by those who are elected to make them, rather than do what he said he was going to do during the campaign, which was to get political activists on the court.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president said today he hopes to have the soon-to-be empty seat filled in time for the next court session, which starts in October.