Stephen Breyer, a liberal member of the US Supreme Court, plans to retire this year, according to US media reports, a move that will pose a political test for US President Joe Biden as he seeks to install a progressive replacement.
Breyer, 83, is expected to step down at the end of the court’s current term in June. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, said Breyer “is, and always has been, a model jurist”, and vowed that Biden’s nominee “will receive a prompt hearing in the Senate judiciary committee, and will be considered and confirmed by the full United States Senate with all deliberate speed ”.
When asked about the news at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, Biden told reporters: “There has been no announcement from Justice Breyer. Let him make whatever statement he’s going to make, and I’ll be happy to talk about it later. ”
The Supreme Court’s oldest member has come under mounting pressure in recent months to step down so Biden can nominate a younger liberal to fill his lifetime seat on America’s highest court. There are no term limits for US Supreme Court justices.
Breyer and his former colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg first faced calls to resign in 2011, when Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy argued in a contentious essay for The New Republic that the two justices should step aside to allow then-Democratic president Barack Obama to select their successors.
Ginsburg died in 2020 aged 87, just months before the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. He filled her seat ahead of presidential elections in November with Amy Coney Barrett, cementing a 6-3 conservative majority on the court’s bench.
Breyer, who was nominated by former President Bill Clinton, has been a member of the court for almost three decades.
Supreme Court justices are chosen by presidents but require confirmation by a simple majority in the Senate. The confirmation process, which includes a series of public hearings before the Senate judiciary committee, has become one of the most politically charged events in Congress.
While presidential appointments have in the past received widespread bipartisan support, 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 backing the pick.
Another Trump pick, Brett Kavanaugh, was also mired in controversy amid sexual harassment allegations dating back to his teenage years, which hung over his confirmation hearing. He was ultimately confirmed in a 50-48 Senate vote, with Joe Manchin as the lone Democrat supporting his nomination.
As a candidate for president, Biden vowed to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court bench should a vacancy arrive during his tenure. Just two black justices – Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas – have sat on the Supreme Court in its history, and only five women have served as justices.
The White House declined to confirm reports of Breyer’s retirement on Wednesday. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a brief statement on Twitter: “It has always been the decision of any Supreme Court Justice if and when they decide to retire, and how they want to announce it.”
Dick Durbin, the Democrat from Illinois who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, praised Breyer as a “trusted voice on the bench with a first-rate legal mind” and said he looked “forward to moving the president’s nominee expeditiously” 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 back a Biden nominee.
“If all Democrats hang together – which I expect they will – they have the power to replace Justice Breyer in 2022 without one Republican vote in support,” Graham said. “Elections have consequences, and that is most evident when it comes to fulfilling vacancies on the Supreme Court.”
NBC News first reported on Breyer’s retirement. The Supreme Court did not immediately return a request for comment.