I was having an informal chat with Stevens' daughter Susan Mullen, a real estate lawyer in the Washington area, on Friday morning. We were talking about family, and her father's judicial legacy. Two minutes after our conversation ended at her law office, the Supreme Court press office called me to say that the 89-year-old Stevens had just announced his intention to step aside. I quickly reached Mullen on the phone and relayed the news, wondering whether she would have her best poker face on during our conversation - knowing but not saying.
"He what?" Mullen said, her voice rising. "Wait a minute, did you just say he just announced it?" The shock in her voice told me she had no idea.
So one of the most powerful men in the country makes a momentous decision and does not bother to tell his children beforehand. Sounds surprising, but at the insular world of the Supreme Court, discretion is almost a way of life. Stevens in particular is a very private man, who allows few interviews and public appearances. His anonymity is part of his power and gives him the ability to operate behind the scenes without attracting much attention.
I had known from my court sources that Stevens was not discussing with anyone besides his wife whether he planned to retire. Many of his colleagues had assumed he would, but the unpredictable Stevens had left them not entirely sure when word would come down. The few who dared ask him directly were given a polite non-answer.
Mullen said she had not directly asked her father about his plans, not wanting to be in a position of holding onto such information. So the news came as a surprise to her. Government sources say the White House was also unaware that Stevens' letter to the president would come Friday.
Previous members of the court have had a way of springing these announcements without anyone being aware. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stepped aside unexpectedly in July 2005, and her adult sons had no idea, until contacted by friends and reporters.
And in 1986 Chief Justice Warren Burger had quietly informed the White House months in advance of his intention to retire. The news never leaked until President Ronald Reagan walked unannounced into the White House pressroom with Burger and his replacement, William Rehnquist. Rehnquist was an associate justice at the time, and also on stage was Antonin Scalia, the man who was nominated to replace Rehnquist. It was all carefully orchestrated for maximum surprise impact.