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Justice Stevens Stumbles: A Step To Retirement?

(GETTY IMAGES/Mark Wilson)
Justice John Paul Stevens has left some clues he's planning to retire this year, shortly after he turns 90 years old. He's only hired one law clerk for next term, for example, and not the four that sitting justices typically hire every year.

But Stevens is unpredictable, and he's seemed as sharp as ever from the bench, so I thought maybe, just maybe, he would pull something out of his sleeve at the last minute and stick around for awhile.

Until today.

Stevens spent a good 20 minutes this morning reading a summary of his scathing dissent in the campaign finance case. And he showed his age.

The language in his written dissent was forceful. But it was striking to see him appear to stumble over words as he read it, to mispronounce words like "corruption" and "allegation," to seem to lose his place in his summary, to often hit the microphone with his hand or his papers.

Maybe it was just a bad day, and Lord knows we've all had those. And certainly it was the longest summary from the bench in some time. But it was so different from the John Paul Stevens we've come to know. He's the maverick justice who asks pointed questions from the bench and cleverly makes his points, sometimes with sly dry humor.

Today, he was different, and almost felt like relief when he finally got through his summary.

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