WASHINGTON (CN) – Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement Wednesday afternoon as the Supreme Court adjourned for the summer.
“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,” the 81-year-old Kennedy said in a statement.
Kennedy submitted formal notification of his retirement to President Donald Trump, announcing that he will take senior status effective July 31.
Nominated to the bench by President Ronald Reagan, Kennedy said he was retiring to spend more time with family.
Considered a swing vote during his 30 years on the bench, Kennedy was key to majority decisions in landmark cases on abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, guns, campaign finance and voting rights.
Until President Donald Trump appoints a successor, the court will be split between four Democrat-appointed judges and four judges named by Republicans.
The Senate confirmed Trump’s first nominee to the Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch, in April 2017.
Appointing Gorsuch to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia had been one Trump’s first moves as president. Trump called Kennedy a man of “tremendous vision” on Wednesday and vowed to begin the search for the next justice “immediately.”
Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said he is prepared to confirm Trump’s replacement as soon as possible. He said he has not looked deeply into the list of possible Supreme Court nominees the White House has maintained, but that he would like to see one of Gorsuch’s caliber.
“I want somebody who understands the separation of powers and the role of the judiciary,” Senator Kennedy said in an interview. “Now, for me Neil Gorsuch satisfied this. I want another Neil Gorsuch.”
But just as Gorsuch was seen as a fitting successor to Scalia, Senator Richard Blumenthal said in an interview that Trump should appoint someone who will carry on Justice Kennedy’s legacy.
“The president needs to nominate someone who is in Justice Kennedy’s mold, an open-minded and fair jurist who can be a centrist and listen to his colleagues and to the country about what is needed to protect our key rights and liberties,” said Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
For some experts, however, Kennedy’s legacy is seen as “decidedly mixed.”
“His jurisprudence on gay marriage and LGBT equality are rightly seen as landmarks,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “Still, his Citizens United decision gravely undermined our elections, and he most recently missed an opportunity to rule against extreme partisan gerrymandering. He retires leaving our democracy plainly weaker than when he joined the court.
Alan Morrison, associate dean at George Washington University Law School, said in an interview that Kennedy has been a unique voice on the court, specifically in areas like the First Amendment and gay rights.
“He has had a lasting impression on the court,” Morrison said. “He is a person who speaks his mind and was not afraid to offer opinions that were a little different from what was advanced to him or what others on the bench were thinking. And he persuaded the court to go along with him. In many cases he’s been in the middle and his fifth vote has been very important in many cases.”
Waldman at the Brennan Center noted that the retirement of a “perennial swing vote” like Kennedy amps the stakes.
“Everything is on the line,” Waldman said. “This fight will underscore the stark and central role the Supreme Court plays in our country. The stakes could not be higher. This choice is as consequential as any blockbuster court decision or any nomination in decades.”
Senator Kennedy, who is a former adjunct law professor at Louisiana State University, said he has not agreed with all of Justice Kennedy’s decisions but that he respects his impact on the law and his approach to cases.
“I think he’s been a hell of a justice,” Senator Kennedy said. “I don’t agree with all of his opinions. I’m not saying I’ve read all of them but I’ve read a lot of them, but I’ll tell you what, I haven’t read one that I didn’t think he really thought about carefully and believed that what he was doing was right. I just think he’s a very accomplished man who has been a great public servant.”
Blumenthal called Kennedy’s retirement “earth-shattering and gut- wrenching” but said the Senate “should do nothing to artificially delay” consideration of Trump’s choice.
On the Senate floor this afternoon, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he plans to confirm a replacement for Justice Kennedy in the fall, after lawmakers have had the chance to meet with and hold hearings on Trump’s choice for the seat.
Blumenthal noted meanwhile that midterm elections this November could throw a wrench in the timetable.
“The president should take the time that’s necessary, and it will be more than a month or two, to nominate someone who is open minded and fair, a jurist who has a track record in the mold of Justice Kennedy,” Blumenthal said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on McConnell to adhere to the principle he cited consistently in 2016 when he led the Republican blockade against the Scalia successor nominated by then-President Barack Obama.
Just as Republicans refused to confirm Merrick Garland to the court during the 2016 presidential election, the Senate should not consider Kennedy’s replacement until after the 2018 midterms, Schumer said.
“Anything but that would be absolute height of hypocrisy,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
The White House issued a statement that applauded Kennedy’s adherence to “the Founders’ enduring vision of limited government.”
“A Californian — like the president who appointed him — Justice Kennedy is a true man of letters,” the White House said. “During his tenure on the court, he authored landmark opinions in every significant area of constitutional law, most notably on equal protection under the law, the separation of powers, and the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and religion.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley also issued a statement Wednesday that applauded Justice Kennedy for his staunch defense of the First Amendment, “especially the freedom of speech and religious liberty.”
“I expect the president will soon nominate someone for the Senate to consider,” said Grassley, an Iowa Republican. “I encourage the president to choose a nominee with the credentials, intellect and commitment to the rule of law necessary to serve on the Supreme Court. I look forward to having the nominee before us in the Senate Judiciary Committee for his or her hearing in the weeks ahead.”