President Obama's statement zeroes in on the first part of Justice John Paul Stevens' one-sentence letter of resignation. Also worth considering is the letter's second part, which states that the retirement will be "effective the next day after the Court rises for the summer recess this year."
That formal phrasing hearkens to centuries of Supreme Court history, and serves as a reminder of Justice Stevens' commitment to the past, present, and future of that institution. Reflections of that commitment may be found, to cite two examples, in "Join me," the tradition-laden phrase Stevens uses to signal his own joining of a colleague's draft opinion, and in "I respectfully dissent," a standard signature on many Stevens opinions.
The commitment was evident, too, in Stevens' public statement, made just a month after the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, that the President should come to the Court to swear in new Justices, rather than ask Justices to come to the White House.
Stevens' statement had the desired effect: upon the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor, Obama became the first President in years to go to the Court to administer the oath to a new Justice.
Thus did Obama pay respect to Justice Stevens' view that this gesture honors values of separation of powers and judicial independence embedded in our Constitution. For a Justice steeped in the tradition of the institution he serves, the was is no small thing. As I wrote at the time: "It is on such niceties that the rule of law rests." — Diane Marie Amann