WASHINGTON — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a key swing vote and an enormously influential force on the court for three decades, announced Wednesday he is retiring, giving President Donald Trump a chance to solidify control of the high court.
Kennedy, 81, hand-delivered a letter of resignation to Trump at the White House on the final day of the court’s term and will step down from the bench July 31.
“For a member of the legal profession, it is the highest of honors to serve on this Court,” Kennedy wrote. “Please permit me by this letter to express my profound gratitude for having had the privilege to seek in each case how best to know, interpret and defend the Constitution and the laws that must always conform to its mandates and promises.”
The departure of Kennedy will enable Trump to nominate a justice to gain a solid 5-4 majority for more conservative justices.
Kennedy has cast the pivotal vote on numerous cases, joining more liberal justices in cases involving gay rights, affirmative action, abortion and voting rights. In this three decades on the court, he wrote more than 400 decisions and participated in more than 1,400.
At the White House, Trump praised Kennedy as a “great justice of the Supreme Court” and said he would “begin immediately” a search for Kennedy’s replacement from among 25 potential nominees, vetted by conservative groups.
The Supreme Court said in a news release that Kennedy decided to retire after 30 years on the high court because of his “deep desire” to spend more time with his family.
Kennedy, a 1988 appointee of former President Ronald Reagan, wrote the court’s landmark 5-4 opinion in 2015 n Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same-sex marriage and has joined the court’s more liberal justices in banning the death penalty for juveniles and and mentally disabled people, and ruling Guantanamo Bay detainees could challenge detentions.
But Kennedy also has voted with more conservative justices to eviscerate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, expand Second Amendment gun ownership rights and lift limits on corporate contributions to federal political candidates.
Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee, Neil M. Gorsuch, who succeeded the late Antonin Scalia, in April 2017, has dramatically shifted the court’s balance, and has cast deciding votes, including in Tuesday’s 5-4 decision upholding Trump’s travel ban.
Gorsuch’s confirmation came after a bruising battle in the Senate. Republicans changed Senate rules to overcome a Democratic filibuster by relying on the “nuclear option” – requiring only a simple majority of 51 votes rather than 60 to break a filibuster on a Supreme Court nominee.
Liberal activists worry Kennedy’s replacement, to be nominated from a list of Supreme Court candidates vetted by the conservative Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society, will be much more likely to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, as many conservatives hope to do. A more conservative Trump appointee also would be more likely to reject challenges to the death penalty and scale back race-based Affirmative Action and gay rights.