WASHINGTON - US Supreme Court Justice David Souter is to retire, US media reported, giving President Barack Obama his first opportunity to name a judge to the highest US court.
Souter plans to step down when the current court session ends in June. Government officials told National Public Radio that Souter, who has Republican roots but often sided with liberal justices, is expected to remain on the bench until a successor has been confirmed.
Souter, 69, "has informed the White House of his decision," NPR added.
Other US news organizations also reported the retirement, but there was no immediate word from Souter or the White House.
Vice President Joseph Biden has been charged with drawing up a list of possible nominees, the Washington Post reported, citing a source close to the court.
Due to likely wrangling in the US Senate over a successor, it is possible the new judge may not be ready by the time the Supreme Court reconvenes in October.
Among leading contenders are solicitor general Elena Kagan, who currently represents the government before the Supreme Court; Hispanic judge Sonia Sotomauor, who sits on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; and federal judge Diane Wood, who taught at the University of Chicago at the same time as Obama.
Rumors of Souter's retirement began in recent days after he reportedly failed to hire new clerks for October's new term -- something all the other justices have done by now.
NPR confirmed that Souter, who is younger than four of the other justices, is in good health, and is likely retiring for personal reasons -- to return to his former home state of New Hampshire.
He was known to have disliked life in Washington, reportedly telling friends that he expected to be the first justice Obama will replace.
But observers had expected others like 89-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens or Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 76, who is undergoing chemotherapy and recovering from pancreatic cancer surgery, to precede him.
When President George HW Bush appointed Souter to the bench in 1990 he was a little known appeals court judge championed by a former Republican governor of New Hampshire who called him "a home run for conservatives."
However, Souter proved to be a more moderate voice, siding with the liberal wing of the high bench.
The opportunity to name a new justice comes as a slew of controversial issues -- including gay marriage, abortion rights, gun ownership, the death penalty and Internet privacy -- are all likely to resurface in coming years.
An Obama pick, however, is unlikely to drastically alter the Court's ideological leaning, as Souter generally votes with the three liberal-leaning justices.
Currently four conservatives and four liberals -- with moderate Anthony Kennedy holding the middle ground -- compose a balance on the Court that Obama, a Democrat, is expected to sustain.
His choice is likely to prevail in the US Senate, where Democrats currently hold 59 seats to the Republican's 40.
Only two women have served on the Supreme Court -- Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor who retired in 2006. Two African-Americans have succeeded one another in the same seat.
During his election campaign, Obama said he would not make abortion a litmus test in his choice of a Supreme Court justice.
"I taught constitutional law for 10 years, and ... when you look at what makes a great Supreme Court justice, it's not just the particular issue and how they rule but it's their conception of the court," Obama said during one debate.
"And part of the role of the court is that it is going to protect people who may be vulnerable in the political process, the outsider, the minority, those who are vulnerable, those who don't have a lot of clout."
Souter, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, began his law career in New Hampshire, rising to the rank of attorney general in the state.
From 1978 he served for five years as an associate justice of the Superior Court of New Hampshire, before moving up to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.