President Obama said he hopes to have his first nominee to the Supreme Court seated by the start of the next term, in October, as he confirmed Friday afternoon that Justice David Souter is retiring from the nation's highest court.
Obama, who interrupted the daily White House press briefing to deliver the news, also gave the first hints of the kind of nominee he will look for to replace Souter, saying he will value "empathy" as well as a "sharp and independent" legal mind during the vetting process. Obama already has floated names to advisers of possible successors, one official told FOX News.
Obama's was confirming what what many in Washington already knew by Friday morning. Souter apparently had been telling associates of his plans, and as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was peppered with questions about those conversations during the briefing, Obama stepped in. He told reporters he had just gotten off the phone with Souter.
Reading from a prepared statement, Obama praised the liberal judge, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, as an even-handed justice who approached his work with a "feverish" work ethic.
"Throughout his two decades on the Supreme Court, Justice Souter has shown what it means to be a fair-minded and independent judge. He came to the bench with no particular ideology. He never sought to promote a political agenda," Obama said. "And he consistently defied labels and rejected absolutes, focusing instead on just one task -- reaching a just result in the case that was before him."
Souter informed the president of his decision over the phone and in a two-sentence letter Friday.
"When the Supreme Court rises for the summer recess this year, I intend to retire from regular service as a Justice," he wrote, adding that, "I mean to continue to render substantial judicial service as an Associate Justice."
Souter handed to Obama one of the most lasting decisions a president can make, since Supreme Court appointments are for life.
Since Souter generally votes with the liberal wing of the court, Obama is not in a position to shift the balance of the body. But speculation already is widespread about whether the president will pick somebody whose philosophies are left of Souter's and whether he will pick a woman, a minority, or both. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the only woman on the Supreme Court.
Obama on Friday referred to his eventual pick as "him or her." And he continued to emphasize, as he did during the presidential campaign, that his ideal justice would have a connection with ordinary people.
"I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives," he said. "I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."
He said he'll also seek a nominee dedicated to U.S. constitutional traditions, and who respects the "appropriate limits of the judicial role."
One senior administration official said the White House has been preparing for such a vacancy since the "early days of the transition," and had set up a working group dedicated to judicial selection during that period.
During meetings in December, the president suggested possible Supreme Court nominees "whom he would give serious consideration."
Senior staff also held a meeting Thursday, before the news of Souter's retirement broke, to organize in preparation for a vacancy.
"Meetings and preparation are ongoing," the official said.
Republicans on Friday urged Obama to choose a center-minded nominee.
"The next Supreme Court justice will hold a lifetime appointment, and the president should take his time and search for a nominee whose legal views are consistent with and reflective of mainstream America," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement. "He should not use this as an opportunity to impose his liberal legacy on America."
FOX News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.