8 a.m. ET: On the 100th day of his term, President Obama averred that he had no interest in running banks or auto companies because he's "got more than enough to do." That became even more true on his 101st day, when the continuing spread of the swine flu was bookended by the morning news that Chrysler would file for bankruptcy and the evening revelation that David Souter plans to retire from the Supreme Court.
All over town, you can hear the permanent but temporarily dormant infrastructure of past judicial battles creaking back to life for another fight. SCOTUSblog says "there has been wide speculation that Souter would leave the Court fairly soon," mainly because "he recently spoke of returning to Washington each year for a new term as if it were something like a lobotomy." The conventional wisdom seems already to be congealing that this retirement won't be that consequential, if only because Obama will likely replace the liberal Souter with another left-leaning nominee. But The Volokh Conspiracy points out that this pick does matter, for the simple reason that "the average Supreme Court justice serves for over 26 years," and so Souter's replacement will make his or her mark on the court for decades to come. Obama's opportunity today is one more that a near-term Republican successor likely won't have.
Vice President Biden has been tasked with drawing up a list of potential replacements, which will give him the chance to compensate for his swine flu gaffe yesterday (raise your hand if you believe Biden actually meant what the White House says he meant). Sonia Sotomayor, Diane Wood, Elena Kagan and a handful of other names are already being mentioned by the Great Mentioners. The early money is on Obama picking a woman for the post.
Barring a particularly controversial pick, its hard to envision this nomination fight setting off the fireworks that other recent ones have. With Democrats holding 59 votes in the Senate and eyeing 60, it will be difficult for Republicans to stall whomever Obama chooses. The plot thickens, however, since the man who had been the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee -- Arlen Specter -- just crossed the aisle to become a Democrat. Jeff Sessions is his likely successor, though Chuck Grassley is reportedly shopping a (seemingly far-fetched) plan that would give Orrin Hatch his old Judiciary slot on a temporary basis now, and then Grassley would take it in 2011. For committed conservatives, Sessions would be preferable to either Hatch or Grassley.
Souter's likely retirement wasn't the only one to leak out in Washington yesterday. Jim Bunning appears to be leaning in that direction as well. That will make Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn happy but saddens The Rundown and his fellow Bunning-watchers in the press, who have enjoyed chronicling his gaffes and general crankiness over the years. (Bringing two storylines together, Bunning predicted just a few months ago, in his own tactful fashion, that Ruth Bader Ginsburg's slot on the Supreme Court would come open before Souter's would.)
The news that Republicans will at least have a shot at keeping the Kentucky seat provides a glimmer of hope for a party that has otherwise been taking hits on a daily basis. Michael Steele is fighting for control of the RNC against party factions who either never backed his chairmanship in the first place or have come to see his elevation as a mistake. And the number of Americans who actually call themselves Republicans is dwindling rapidly, having plummeted to about 20 percent in several polls. The GOP is working to create a new message and a new store of policy ideas with which to combat Obama. Until the party succeeds, it will be stuck with a relatively small minority and unable to really influence the debate the next time a Supreme Court justice decides to retire.
May 1, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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