“Do you think there is any chance Stevens will stay?”

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A colleague who covers the Court asked that in an e-mail today. He said he had thought that Justice John Paul Stevens was ready to retire at the end of this term but said the justice’s recent remarks might be read as a signal he truly is undecided and may stay. My response: He’s leaving.

I base that not only on what Justice Stevens has said in interviews but that he is even giving interviews.

Justice Stevens does not like to talk about himself. I have interviewed him several times over the years but mostly under circumstances focused on other people, for example, in 2001, when a Stevens friend and former associate (Kenneth Manaster) wrote a book on a 1969 judicial investigation in which Stevens played a key role, or when I needed information on Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia. Only recently has Stevens indulged questions centered on his own work and legacy.

When I saw Justice Stevens in his chambers last week and asked about his retirement plans, he said, “I still like the job, there’s no doubt about it. That’s why I still keep my options open.” With some disbelief, I said to him, “Have you really not yet decided?” He responded, “Wait and see.”

His remarks on retirement were in keeping with what he had told me last October in an interview and what he told the New Yorker, New York Times and Washington Post in recent weeks.

I think the fact that Justice Stevens says he is torn reveals how hard it is for someone who loves his job — and has been at it for nearly 35 years — to say he is packing up his briefcase for good. I think he might also think it is better to wait a little longer into the term, perhaps until after oral arguments, which conclude on April 28. (He turns 90 on April 20.) In the past, retiring justices did not announce they were stepping down until the end of the term in late June, after all the decisions had been issued (see my post of February 16). In recent years, some justices have announced in early spring, partly to give the president more time to choose a successor. David Souter made his decision public on May 1 last year, in large measure, however, because it had leaked out.

Although Justice Stevens is now more willing to talk about himself in interviews, it is still like yanking teeth. He tends to be a one-sentence-answer kind of guy. He has a steady approach, a flat Midwestern twang — and nothing especially riles him. That is the exact opposite of Justice Scalia, who I happened to visit after my interview with Stevens. When Stevens does retire, Scalia will become the longest tenured justice on the bench.

Stevens abhors the conservative shift in the Court, yet he talks about it with a shrug: “There are a lot of cases that I’m disappointed with and I think they (the majority) make mistakes. But you learn to live with it.”

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