JENNIFER LOVEN Associated Press Writers WASHINGTON
The retirement of a veteran Supreme Court justice will give President Barack Obama his first opportunity to fill a vacancy on the highest U.S. tribunal. But the departure of David Souter, part of the court's liberal wing, is unlikely to change the ideological balance of a court that became more conservative during George W. Bush's presidency. The White House has been told that Souter will retire in June, when the court finishes its work for the summer, a source familiar with his plans said Thursday night. The retirement is likely to take effect only once a successor is confirmed; Obama's pick is likely to be a liberal-leaning nominee, much like Souter. The source spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for Souter. Souter had no comment Thursday night, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said. The make-up of the Supreme Court can be a high-stakes political issue since justices remain on the nine-member court for their lifetimes or until they retire. Bush's two appointees are seen as swinging the court to the right. Nominees have to be confirmed by the Senate, which has often led to grueling showdowns, especially over abortion. But, Obama has an advantage with a strong Democratic majority and his nominee might be confirmed more smoothly than in the recent past. Souter's vacancy could lead to another woman on the bench to join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, currently the court's only woman. At 69, Souter is much younger than either Ginsburg, 76, or Justice John Paul Stevens, 89, the other two liberal justices whose names have been mentioned as possible retirees. Yet those justices have given no indication they intend to retire soon and Ginsburg said she plans to serve into her 80s despite her recent surgery for pancreatic cancer. Souter, a regular jogger, is thought to be in excellent health. Interest groups immediately began gearing up for what could be a grueling battle over a high court vacancy. "We're looking for President Obama to choose an eminently qualified candidate who is committed to the core constitutional values, who is committed to justice for all and not just a few," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice. The Obama White House began from almost its first days in office preparing for the possibility of a retirement by thinking about and vetting potential high court nominees. Those efforts only accelerated with Ginsburg's cancer surgery.