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The Politics Of Supreme Court Retirement05:08

This article is more than 5 years old.

The subject of Supreme Court retirement has been a widely discussed issue lately.

Last month, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg celebrated her 81st birthday, stirring a debate about whether or not it is her time to step down. Additionally, last Sunday, retired Justice John Paul Stevens told George Stephanolpoulos on "This Week" that it was acceptable to take politics into account when deciding when to retire.

NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg talks with Here & Now's Robin Young about the factors, both political and otherwise, that go into Supreme Court retirement and whether we might see this in the near future for Justice Ginsburg.

Interview Highlights: Nina Totenberg

On what she knows of Ginsburg's intentions

"I really have to tell you that for those of us who cover the court, we don't pay much attention to [the retirement talk], because Ginsburg's made pretty clear that she has not much intention of retiring this term, at least as long as she's well. In fact, she's made it pretty clear that she really — I don't know at what point in the future she might decide to retire, but that it's not right now."

On what she believes justices base retirement decisions off of

"I think the tightrope for most justices is to make sure they're not gaga. They all worry that by the time they should go, they won't know that they should go. So it's easy for Justice Stevens to make that inference about Justice Ginsburg, but, of course, he was 90 when he retired, and she's 81. And what did it for him was his announcement of the dissent in the Citizens United campaign elections case, campaign funding case, and he had a very long dissent from the bench, and he was tripping over his words and having difficulty enunciating his dissent. And he actually went to the doctor afterwards to check himself out. Everything was fine, but that was the final push for him. He told me that was what finally made him say, 'Okay, the time has come.'"

"They also think about themselves, and their contributions, and whether they want to stay and think they have something yet to contribute — perhaps even more to contribute."

Speculating on Ginsburg's thought process

"It's entirely possible that if Justice Ginsburg were to step down at the end of this term, nobody would be confirmed until after the election. And if then there was a Republican Senate, a Republican-controlled Senate, it's not entirely clear that any Obama nominee would be confirmed. Conversely, perhaps Justice Ginsburg thinks that there will be a President Hillary Clinton in 2017, taking office, who can name a replacement, and that may well not happen."


This segment aired on April 24, 2014.

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