Justice Anthony Kennedy, who already decides whether liberals or conservatives win the Supreme Court’s most closely contested cases, is about to take on an even more influential behind-the-scenes role with the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens.

By virtue of seniority, Kennedy will inherit Stevens’ power to choose the author of some Court opinions, an authority that has historically been used — including in as big a case as the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision — to subtly shape a ruling or preserve a tenuous majority.