WASHINGTON -- Justice Lewis Powell, in a surprise move, announced his retirement from the Supreme Court effective today, setting the stage for conservatives to gain a clear majority on the high court.
Powell's announcement, on the last day of the court's term, gives President Reagan, with a year and a half left in office, the opportunity to replace the moderate justice with a conservative, which would give the court a conservative majority.
In a 15 minute news conference at the court, Powell, 79, said, 'Today was one of my worst moments. I leave the court with a great deal of sadness.'
The justice said his resignation was effective today and he will not stay on until a replacement is confirmed by the Senate. He declined to speculate on his successor or what impact a new judge would have on the nine-member court.
Powell said he reached his decision to retire after a series of long-distance phone calls with his two sons and two daughter, who live as far away as Houston, Salt Lake City and Richmond.
Earlier, Powell said he decided to retire because of his age and his health.
'On Sepember 19, I will be 80 years of age,' Powell said in a statement. 'I believe I said some years ago that it would have been wise for the Founding Fathers to have required retirement of federal judges at a specified age, perhaps at 75.'
'Of course such a limitation would have deprived the court of the service after that age by a number of the most distinguished justices ever to sit on this court. I specifically include present brothers among this group. But for me, age 80 suggests retirement.'
The court has been split since the days of Chief Justice Warren Burger, who retired last summer, between conservatives now led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor, both Reagan appointments, and Byron White; and the liberals, led by Justice William Brennan and joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun and generally John Paul Stevens.
Powell has long been the swing vote on the court making the difference between whether a decision comes down with a liberal or conservative majority in such critical areas as abortion and affirmative action.
Kate Michelman, executive director of National Abortion Rights Action League, said, 'The right to safe and legal abortion has never been in greater jeopardy. Justice Powell was the pivotal vote on the court. The next appointee will determine the future health and well being of American women and their families.'
John Powell, legal director of the Anerican Civil Liberties Union, urged the Congress to carefully review any nomination by the president and said he would oppose any candidate who is a strong foe of abortion and affirmative action.
'It is not only critical for the court. It is critical for the country,' John Powell said. 'It's reasonable to assume the Democrats are going to closely scrutinize the appointment.'
Emily Sack, of the Nation Institute's Supreme Court Watch project, a liberal group which studies prospective court nominees, expressed surprise at the sudden resignation. 'We're very sorry to hear about Justice Powell's resignation,' Sack said. 'We are obviously concerned about what it means for the court. We felt last summer there would already be a dramatic shift with the nomination of Scalia and Rehnquist to be chief justice. This time it is definite this nomination is crucial for the direction the court will take in the future.'
Powell, who has undergone major surgery three times since coming to the court in 1972, said he was in good health but has not been 'robust.'
'My past illnesses have created problems for the court and for litigants,' he said, a reference to 1985 when he had prostate surgery and was absent from the court for many weeks, forcing the justices to decide several cases without his vote.
There has been speculation for some time that Powell, a Nixon appointment, would retire before the end of Reagan's presidency. Political observers have noted that as Reagan's term nears its end it would become more difficult to push a conservative idealogue through the Senate, now controlled by Democrats.
The observers said if the court remained unchanged for another year, Reagan would miss his opportunity to make the court his own.
Reagan learned of Powell's action shortly before it was announced. 'The president expressed mild surprise,' said White House chief of staff Howard Baker, adding 'he had no forewarning.'
Officials said a successor would not be named today.
'I would expect the president will address the issue on Monday,' Baker said.
Foremost among those mentioned as possible replacements is Judge Robert Bork of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Another conservative contender, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was a member of Congress when the justices' salaries were raised and is thus barred by the Constitution. Hatch could join the court only if a special law is passed.
Other possible replacements include federal appeals court judges Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook of Chicago, Ralph Winter of New Haven and Pasco Bowman of Kansas City.
Rehnquist, in a statement from the bench, expressed his regret.
'Justice Powell came to the court after an illustrious career of private practice and public service bespeaking the best traditions of the legal profession,' Rehnquist said. 'He has now capped that career with 15 years of able and devoted service as a justice of this court. We shall miss his wise counsel in our deliberations, but we look forward to being the continuing beneficiaries of his friendship.'
Powell said he had no specific plans for the future, but wanted to be involved in public service, perhaps become affiliated with a law school and spend more time with children and grandchildren.
'This has been a difficult decision,' Powell said. 'It was finally made by Mrs. Powell and me only this week and after consulting with each of our children.'
'I leave the court to become a retired justice with a considerable measure of sadness,' Powell added. 'It is with special personal regret that I will not have -- in full measure -- the close association that I have shared with other members of this court.'
'I count all eight of them as friends,' Powell said. 'As I said last summer in a talk at the American Bar Association, I have the highest respect and admiration for the legal ability, devotion to duty and -- of course -- the integrity of each of them.'