U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, 81, retired Wednesday, setting in motion a shakeup of the high court that could have far-reaching consequences on issues like abortion and healthcare.
Kennedy, a Reagan appointment, represented a key swing vote in recent years on controversial cases, including Wednesday's ruling affecting public union dues. His retirement ensures that President Donald Trump and the GOP-majority Senate will get the chance to move the high court's balance to the right for decades to come. His retirement spurred immediate reactions from abortion-rights and anti-abortion groups, who foresee that his successor will have an outsized role in potentially changing the nation's abortion laws.
Senate Republican leadership will move Trump's nomination this fall, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) declined to say Wednesday whether he anticipated an overturn of Roe v. Wade once Trump's nomination is in place.
Kennedy's retirement will likely pitch an already fiercely divided Washington into new levels of angst, coming on the heels of Neal Gorsuch's confirmation after McConnell blocked confirmation of President Barack Obama's pick Merrick Garland for nearly a year.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) warned in a statement that "Washington is already gearing up for Red vs Blue blood sport."
The retirement sent abortion-rights advocacy groups on high alert. They are already waging legal battles against the Trump administration's changes to Title X family planning regulations that ban Planned Parenthood and other providers from the family planning grant program,
"The significance of today's news cannot be overstated: The right to access abortion in this country is on the line," said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "For more than 40 years, access to safe and legal abortion has been the law of the land, and the right to control your body is an essential American liberty. With this vacancy, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell hold the balance of the court in their hands—and with it, the legal right to access abortion in this country."
Anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), whose grassroots effort to drive the anti-abortion vote is seeking to bring out 2 million votes in key Senate races of vulnerable Democratic incumbents, has made an anti-abortion majority court one of its highest priorities.
"Justice Kennedy's retirement from the Supreme Court marks a pivotal moment for the fight to ensure every unborn child is welcomed and protected under the law," SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said. "The most important commitment that President Trump has made to the pro-life movement has been his promise to nominate only pro-life judges to the Supreme Court, a commitment he honored by swiftly nominating Judge Neil Gorsuch. SBA List was proud to take the lead in rallying pro-life grassroots support for Gorsuch, and we were thrilled to see those efforts come to fruition as Justice Gorsuch took his place on the Supreme Court."
In his statement, McConnell particularly praised Kennedy for his deciding vote on campaign finance in a case that deemed corporate political donations as free speech protected under the First Amendment.
"In particular, we owe him a debt of thanks for his ardent defense of the First Amendment right to political speech," McConnell said.