WASHINGTON — Justice John Paul Stevens, who will turn 90 next year, has given a hint that this Supreme Court term will be his last, potentially clearing the way for a second appointee from President Obama next summer.
Stevens, like most of the justices, hires new law clerks a year in advance, and he confirmed that he had hired only one for fall 2010, not the usual contingent of three or four. Retired justices have one clerk.
Stevens has not said he will step down next year, and he could hire extra clerks in the months ahead. But his early hiring plans, which were first reported by the Associated Press, set off speculation that he had already decided to retire.
This year, the first clear hint of Justice David H. Souter's retirement came in the news that he had not hired a full set of law clerks.
Stevens, a Chicago native and an appointee of President Ford, has been the leading voice of the court's liberal wing for nearly two decades.
In the 1980s, he argued in dissent for ending the death penalty for defendants who were mentally disabled or under age 18 at the time of their crimes. He eventually won majorities for both views. He also was an early champion for gay rights, and he played a key role in a 2003 decision that struck down state laws that criminalized sex between gays or lesbians.
Stevens, the court's last veteran of World War II, also was instrumental in four decisions that rejected President George W. Bush's prison policy at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and gave detainees there a right to plead for their release before a federal judge.
Stevens is the second oldest justice in the court's history. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. retired just two months short of his 91st birthday. Stevens turns 90 in April.
But there is no outward sign that Stevens has slowed or can no longer keep up with the work. On the contrary, he is one of the few justices who writes a first draft of all his opinions and dissents, instead of relying on clerks. And in the courtroom, he asks probing questions of the lawyers.
If Stevens were to retire next summer, the ideological balance would probably not change. Obama could select a nominee to replace Stevens with the confidence that Democrats have a solid majority in the Senate.
In May, the president interviewed Judge Diane P. Wood from Chicago, U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano before choosing Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Another possible candidate for a Supreme Court seat would be former University of Chicago and Harvard Law School professor Cass R. Sunstein, who was chosen by Obama to head a regulatory affairs office in the White House.