Boost for Trump’s agenda as Kennedy retires from US supreme court

Departure of moderate judge paves way for US president to appoint more conservative replacement

Justice Anthony Kennedy has announced his retirement from the US supreme court, in a major boost to conservatives and President Donald Trump.

Justice Kennedy announced he would step down on July 31st. His departure paves the way for Mr Trump to appoint a new supreme court justice – the second since he became president, after his appointment of Neil Gorsuch last year.

The development could have profound implications for the political hue of America’s highest court. Although Justice Kennedy was a conservative, he was seen as a moderating voice and often acted as a pivotal vote in the court.

If replaced by a more conservative judge – which is widely expected – the court is likely to swing to the right.


His retirement had not been entirely unexpected – speculation about his future had abounded in recent years – but there had been no specific indication that he would retire at this time.

Announcing his retirement at one of the final court sessions of this term, the 81-year-old judge said it had 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”.

He visited the White House to inform Mr Trump of his decision ahead of the announcement.

Appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1988, Justice Kennedy has often cast the deciding vote on the nine-member court, and has had played a decisive role in issues such as same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination cases. He also supported Roe V Wade, the law that allows for abortion in the United States – a stance that disappointed many conservatives.


The imminent prospect of Mr Trump appointing a second justice to the bench is likely to incense Democrats.

In Barack Obama's final year in office, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to hold a vote on a replacement for Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016. A vote on his replacement was delayed until Mr Trump's election, after which he nominated Neil Gorsuch, a conservative justice.

Speaking on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell thanked Justice Kennedy for his service, particularly his role in defending the first amendment right to free speech. He said the Senate “stands ready to fulfill its constitutional role” and was prepared to vote on the successor to Justice Kennedy this autumn.

Mr Trump said the search for a replacement would begin right away. He thanked Justice Kennedy, whom he described as a “spectacular” justice. “We will begin our search for a new justice immediately, and hopefully we’re going to pick somebody who will be as outstanding.”

Speaking in the Oval Office shortly after the announcement, Mr Trump said he had assembled a list of 20 possible supreme court candidates during the presidential election, and had since added five more. “It will be somebody from that list,” he said, “a very excellent list of talented, highly educated, highly intelligence, tremendous people.”

He refused to be drawn on whether he would wait until after the midterm elections to appoint the justice, but with Republicans controlling the Senate, the nomination and confirmation process is likely to move swiftly.

Confirmation process

Senate Democrats called on the Senate to delay the vote until January after the midterm elections – an argument used by Mr McConnell and Republicans in 2016 when they refused to consider Mr Obama’s replacement for Antonin Scalia, arguing that it was too close to an election.  But several Senate Republicans have already publicly called for the confirmation process to proceed quickly over the summer.

Among the names under consideration to replace Justice Kennedy are twol former clerks to the justice - Judge Brett Kavanaugh (53) and Judge Raymond Kethledge (51). Other names on the president's list include 52-year-old Thomas Hardiman and Amy Coney Barrett, a former clerk for Antonin Scalia.

Wednesday’s development came during a busy week for the US supreme court, which voted to uphold Mr Trump’s controversial travel ban on Tuesday. On Wednesday, shortly before the announcement of Justice Kennedy’s retirement, the court ruled that public unions could no longer extract fees from workers who choose not to join the union – a blow to the organised labour movement.

Separately, Mr Trump's immigration policy received a setback after a federal court in California ordered a halt to family separations at the Mexican border. A total of 17 states have launched challenges to Mr Trump's policies at the border.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent