(NewsNation Now) — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will retire at the end of this Supreme Court term, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.
Breyer has spent more than two decades as a Supreme Court justice. At 83, Breyer is the oldest member of the court and the most senior member of its three-member liberal wing.
Breyer has been a pragmatic force on a court that has grown increasingly conservative in recent years, trying to forge majorities with more moderate justices right and left of center. He has authored important rulings upholding abortion rights and health care access and helped advance LGBTQ rights.
Breyer was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Only conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, one of two Black men ever on the high court, has served longer among the current justices, joining it in 1991.
Breyer’s retirement gives President Joe Biden his first opportunity to add a member to the nation’s highest court.
Breyer’s departure, expected over the summer, won’t change the 6-3 conservative advantage on the court because his replacement will be nominated by Biden and almost certainly confirmed by a Senate where Democrats have the slimmest majority. It also makes conservative Justice Clarence Thomas the oldest member of the court at 73.
“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, and that remains the case today,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a tweet. “We have no additional details or information to share from @WhiteHouse.”
Biden during the 2020 presidential election campaign pledged to nominate a Black woman to fill any Supreme Court vacancy, which would be a historic first. Biden’s fellow Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the U.S. Senate, which under the U.S. Constitution gets to confirm Supreme Court nominees.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said 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.”
Among the names being circulated as potential nominees are California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, prominent civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill and U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs, whom Biden has nominated to be an appeals court judge. Childs is a favorite of Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who made a crucial endorsement of Biden just before South Carolina’s presidential primary in 2020.
In more than 27 years on the court, Breyer has been an active and cheerful questioner during arguments, a frequent public speaker and quick with a joke, often at his own expense. He made a good-natured appearance on a humorous National Public Radio program in 2007, failing to answer obscure questions about pop stars.
He is known for his elaborate, at times far-fetched, hypothetical questions to lawyers during arguments and he sometimes has had the air of an absent-minded professor. In fact, he taught antitrust law at Harvard earlier in his professional career.
He also spent time working for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy when the Massachusetts Democrat was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. That experience, Breyer said, made him a firm believer in compromise.
Still, he could write fierce dissents, as he did in the Bush v. Gore case that effectively decided the 2000 election in favor of Republican George W. Bush. Breyer unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to return the case to the Florida courts so they could create “a constitutionally proper contest” by which to decide the winner.
Breyer’s 87-9 high-court confirmation was the last with fewer than 10 dissenting votes. Breyer’s opinions were notable because they never contained footnotes. Breyer was warned off such a writing device by Arthur Goldberg, the Supreme Court justice for whom Breyer clerked as a young lawyer.
Breyer and his wife, Joanna, a psychologist and daughter of the late British Conservative leader John Blakenham, have three children — daughters Chloe and Nell and a son, Michael — and six grandchildren.
This story is developing. Refresh for updates.