Justice John Paul Stevens, the longest-serving member of the current Supreme Court and the leader of its liberal wing, announced his retirement Friday, giving President Obama his second chance to make a mark on the nation's highest court.
Stevens, who will turn 90 on April 20, said in a letter to "My dear Mr. President" that he will leave the court at the conclusion of the current term at the end of June.
Stevens said he was announcing his retirement now so that the president would have time to make a nomination and the Senate to confirm in time for the start of the court's new term next October.
A senior administration official confirmed that Stevens informed the White House that he will step down this summer.
Obama was notified of Stevens's decision while traveling on Air Force One on his way back to Washington from Prague, a White House aide said.
Stevens was appointed by President Gerald R. Ford and joined the court on Dec. 19, 1975.
His retirement is not a surprise, and the White House has been preparing for another opening.
Aides and Democrats close to the process named three people as likely front-runners for the job: Solicitor General Elena Kagan, whom Obama appointed as the first woman to hold the post, and two appellate court judges, Diane Wood of Chicago and Merrick Garland of Washington.
Kagan and Wood were interviewed by Obama last spring before he nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the court.
"Having concluded that it would be in the best interests of the Court to have my successor appointed and confirmed well in advance of the commencement of the Court's next Term, I shall retire from regular active service as an Associate Justice . . . effective the next day after the Court rises for the summer recess this year," Stevens wrote to Obama in his one-paragraph letter.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hailed Stevens's "extraordinary judicial career spanning four decades, including 35 years on our highest court." He added: "Justice Stevens' unique and enduring perspective is irreplaceable; his stalwart adherence to the rule of law is unparalleled. The federal judiciary, and indeed the entire nation, will miss his principled jurisprudence."
Leahy, whose committee will conduct confirmation hearings for Stevens's replacement, urged senators of both parties to "make this process a thoughtful and civil discourse" and to "give fair and thorough consideration to Justice Stevens' successor."