Liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Breyer to retire

Justice Stephen Breyer

Justice Stephen Breyer

Liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer plans to retire, lawmakers said on Wednesday, giving President Joe Biden the opportunity to fulfill a campaign promise to nominate the first Black woman to the nation’s top judicial body.

The retirement of Breyer, who is 83 and has served on the court since 1994, gives Biden a first chance to shape the court, whose 6-3 conservative majority has shown an increasing assertiveness on issues including abortion and gun rights.

Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump was able to choose three justices during his four years in office.

Biden’s fellow Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate, which under the U.S. Constitution confirms Supreme Court nominees.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Biden’s nominee to replace Breyer will receive a “prompt hearing” and will be considered and confirmed with “all deliberate speed.”

The Democrats have reason for speed. Republicans are seeking to regain control of the Senate in the Nov. 8 congressional elections.

The chamber’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, has made clear he would block any Biden nominations to the court if his party regains the majority.

A Biden appointee to replace Breyer, who is set to step down after the court’s current term that runs through June, would not change its ideological balance, but would enable him to refresh its liberal wing with a much younger jurist who could serve for decades in the lifetime post.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden will honour his presidential election campaign pledge to nominate a Black woman to fill any Supreme Court vacancy.

Neither the White House nor the Supreme Court confirmed Breyer’s retirement plans.

Breyer and Biden are scheduled to make a public appearance on Thursday where the justice is set to formally announce his retirement, a CNN reporter wrote in a tweet, citing a source familiar with the matter.

Democrats aim to confirm Biden’s pick for the vacancy in a time frame similar to the one-month process that McConnell and the Republicans used in 2020 to confirm Trump’s third appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, according to a source familiar with planning.

White House counsel Dana Remus is likely to help spearhead the process for Biden.

The Senate’s filibuster rule that requires 60 of the 100 members to agree to advance most legislation does not apply to judicial nominations, meaning Democrats could confirm a Biden pick with just their 50 members and Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.

Two centrist Democrats who have blocked some Biden legislative priorities, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have so far supported most of his judicial nominees.

Breyer, the Supreme Court’s oldest member, was appointed to his lifetime post by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

He authored important rulings upholding abortion rights and healthcare access, helped advance LGBT rights and questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty.

He often found himself in dissent on a court that has moved ever rightward.

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