Stephen Breyer, a liberal member of the U.S. Supreme Court, plans to retire this year, according to media reports, a move that will pose a political test for President Joe Biden as he seeks to install a progressive replacement.
Breyer, 83, is expected to resign at the end of the court’s current term in June. Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democratic Senate majority, said Breyer “is and has always been a model lawyer” and promised that Biden’s candidate “will receive a speedy hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be considered and confirmed by the full US Senate at all deliberate speed ”.
When asked about the news in the White House on Wednesday afternoon, Biden told reporters: “There has been no announcement from Justice Breyer. Let him make the statement he wants to make and I will be happy to talk about it later. . “
The highest-ranking member of the Supreme Court has come under increasing pressure in recent months to resign, allowing Biden to nominate a younger liberal to fill his life at the U.S. Supreme Court. There are no time limits for Supreme Court justices.
While retirement would not shift the court’s ideological balance between conservatives and liberals, it would give Biden an opportunity to ensure Breyer’s seat goes to someone who will share similar views.
Breyer and his former colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg first faced calls to resign in 2011 when Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School, argued in a controversial essay for The New Republic that the two judges should step aside to allow then-Democratic President Barack Obama. to choose their successors.
Ginsburg died in 2020 at the age of 87, a few months before Donald Trump’s presidency expired. He occupied her seat ahead of the November presidential election with Amy Coney Barrett, cementing a 6-3 Conservative majority on the bench.
Breyer, who was nominated by former President Bill Clinton, has been a member of the court for nearly three decades.
Supreme Court justices are elected by presidents, but require confirmation by a simple majority in the Senate. The ratification process, which includes a series of public hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, has become one of the most politically charged events in Congress.
“I think it could go very fast because the White House has been thinking about this for a year, even before that,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
While presidential appointments have received bipartisan support in the past, that has changed in recent years. The Senate voted 52-48 to confirm Barrett, with Susan Collins the only Republican to vote against her confirmation, and no Democrats supported her.
Another Trump election, Brett Kavanaugh, was also bound by controversy amid allegations of sexual harassment dating back to his teenage years. He was eventually confirmed in a 50-48 Senate vote, with Joe Manchin as the lone Democrat to support his nomination.
As a presidential candidate, Biden promised to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court bench should a vacancy arise during his term. Only two black judges – Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas – have sat on the Supreme Court, and only five women have served as judges.
Ketanji Brown Jackson, a judge at the District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and Leondra Kruger, a judge at the California Supreme Court, are seen as among the leading candidates to take Breyer’s seat.
The Senate previously confirmed Jackson – who was Breyer’s attorney at the Supreme Court in 1999 and 2000 – with a vote from two parties of 53-44 during her nomination to the Court of Appeals last year.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, did not elaborate on the administration’s thoughts on a candidate to replace Breyer, but said the president “stands by” his promise to apply for a black woman in the Supreme Court.
Asked if Biden could consider Vice President Kamala Harris to fill the vacancy, Psaki replied: “The president has every intention… To run for re-election and to run for re-election with Vice President Harris on the ticket as his partner. “
Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Breyer as a “trusted voice on the bench with a first-class legal mind” and said he was “looking forward to moving the presidential nominee quickly” through the committee.
Lindsey Graham, a senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Breyer a “scholar and a gentleman,” but did not indicate any inclination to support a Biden candidate.
“If all Democrats stick together – which I expect they will – they have the power to replace Justice Breyer in 2022 without a Republican vote in support,” Graham said. “Elections have consequences, and this is most evident when it comes to filling vacancies in the Supreme Court.”
NBC News first reported on Breyer’s retirement. The Supreme Court did not immediately return a request for comment.
Further reporting by James Police
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