Increasingly, Justice Anthony Kennedy has become the most important member of the Supreme Court.  After the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor, Kennedy serves as the swing vote between the conservative and liberal blocs on the Court, siding more often with conservatives (but not often enough for their taste).  At 74, though, Kennedy is at an age when most men think of retirement — and his departure would set off a political firestorm on Capitol Hill the likes of which haven’t been seen since Clarence Thomas endured his trial by fire in the Senate.

And maybe that’s why Kennedy tells close friends and relatives that he wants to wait a while before retiring … or perhaps it’s because of the man who would pick his successor:

Justice Kennedy, who turns 74 this month, has told relatives and friends he plans to stay on the high court for at least three more years – through the end of Obama’s first term, sources said.

That means Kennedy will be around to provide a fifth vote for the court’s conservative bloc through the 2012 presidential election. If Obama loses, Kennedy could retire and expect a Republican President to choose a conservative justice.

Kennedy, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, has been on the court 22 years. He has become a bit of a political nemesis at the White House for his increasing tendency to side with the court’s four rock-ribbed conservative justices.

In fact, as the New York Daily News implies, Kennedy may have made that decision after this year’s State of the Union address:

Without naming Kennedy, Obama was unusually critical of his majority opinion in the Citizens United case, handed down last January. That 5-4 decision struck down limits on contributions to political campaigns as an abridgement of free speech.

Obama called the ruling “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power … in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

He was so angry that he took the unusual step of blasting the decision in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address, with Kennedy and five other justices looking on.

Obama certainly reveled in his prime-time, televised, cheap-shot attack at jurists who couldn’t fire back.  Samuel Alito took fire from the media for having just mouthed a rebuttal.  The only revenge any of them can take is to make sure that they stay in place until Obama leaves office.  The “at least” part of the report almost certainly means that retirement at 80 may be just as possible as retirement at 76.  After all, John Paul Stevens didn’t decide to retire until he was almost 90 years old.

Perhaps the timing is just a coincidence and Kennedy didn’t have plans to retire any earlier even prior to the 2008 election.  However, this looks more like a quiet revenge, and a reminder to Obama that Kennedy will likely remain relevant longer than the President.