Wed. May 25th, 2022

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will retire, creating an opening for the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court, according to U.S. media reports.

Justice Breyer’s 83-year-old decides to retire gives President Joe Biden an opportunity to appoint a successor who could serve for decades. Biden undertook to nominate a black woman for the court, which would be a first in American history.

Breyer’s resignation was first reported by NBC News, CNN and The Associated Press on Wednesday, citing unnamed sources. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity not to pre-empt Breyer’s final announcement, according to the AP.

“There was no announcement about Justice Breyer,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.

“Let him make any statement he wants to make, and I’ll be happy to talk about it later.”

Breyer’s resignation will be politically significant in the US because there are growing fears among Democrats and Liberals that the court – which now has a 6-3 Conservative majority – is ready to overturn major U.S. court precedents.

Biden’s fellow Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate, which is required by the Constitution to confirm the nominees of the Supreme Court. If Republicans regain control of the Senate in the November election, it could hamper Biden’s ability to name a new justice.

“We are so polarized,” Douglas Laycock, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Virginia, told Al Jazeera. “This should mean that the conservative super-majority does not grow … President Biden gets an appointment. So from a balance perspective, 6-3 is better.”

A Biden appointment will not change the court’s ideological balance, but will enable the Democratic president to refresh his liberal wing with a younger jurist in the lifetime post.

The nine judges of the Supreme Court, dressed in formal black, pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.There are nine judges in the U.S. Supreme Court, including co-judge Stephen Breyer, front row, second from left, is the oldest and his resignation may be announced soon [File: Erin Schaff/Pool via AP]

Since joining the court in 1994, Breyer has been a pragmatic force on a court that has become increasingly conservative in recent years, trying to forge majorities with more moderate judges on the right and left.

Breyer wrote important statements that upheld abortion rights and access to health care, helped promote LGBTQ rights, and questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty, but often found himself in disagreement over a court that moved right.

“His work and his decisions as a co – judge on the biggest issues of our time – including voting rights, the environment, women’s freedom of reproduction, and most recently, health care and the Affordable Care Act – have had major consequences,” the majority leader of the Senate said. Chuck Schumer, who promised immediate action on any Biden nominee.

“President Biden’s nominee will receive a speedy hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and will be considered and confirmed by the full U.S. Senate with all deliberate speed,” Schumer said.

Potential Biden nominees include Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former Breyer legal clerk confirmed by the Senate last June to serve in an influential U.S. appeals court, and Leondra Kruger, who serves in the California Supreme Court, according to Reuters.

Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the civil rights group NAACP’s legal operation, was also nominated as a potential Biden nominee.

The court’s current nine-month term began in October and has seen increasing assertiveness by its Conservative majority. Judgments are expected by the end of June which may shorten abortion rights and widen gun rights.

Earlier this week, the judges took up a case that needs to be decided in their next term that could destroy university policy race taken into account in admissions to add more Blacks and Hispanics to their student population. Conservatives are against such affirmative action programs.

Breyer was appointed by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. Together with the late Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Breyer decided not to retire the last time the Democrats controlled the White House and the Senate – during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Now liberal activists are keen to avoid a repeat of what happened when Trump was able to replace Ginsburg, which is expanding the court’s conservative majority.

Ginsburg died in September 2020 which allowed then-President Donald Trump to fill her vacancy with a Conservative justice, Amy Coney Barrett.

In addition to Barrett, Trump nominated conservative lawyers Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch to court during his four-year presidency.

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