WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said on Wednesday he plans to retire after three decades as a pivotal vote on the highest U.S. judicial body, giving President Donald Trump an opportunity to make the court more firmly conservative.
The conservative Kennedy, who turns 82 in July 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 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.
The statement issued by the court said that Kennedy’s decision was motivated by his decision to spend more time with his family.
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. Kennedy on Tuesday joined the court’s four other conservatives in giving Trump a huge legal victory by upholding the Republican president’s travel ban targeting people from several Muslim-majority countries.
Kennedy’s 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 organized labor by shutting off a key union revenue source.
Trump 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.
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While 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.
Trump picked Gorsuch from a list of 20 names, mostly conservative federal appeals court judges, he circulated during his 2016 election campaign. The White House last November issued an expanded list of 25 that includes other prominent conservatives, including Judge Brett Kavanagh, a former Kennedy law clerk who serves on the U.S. appeals court in Washington.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)