Stephen Breyer to retire from US Supreme Court, after Joe Biden pledged to nominate black woman for role

A Biden appointee would not change the court's ideological balance given it has a strong conservative majority.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer

Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, who will step down when the court's current term ends in June. Source: AP

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, the oldest member of the US Supreme Court, will retire in June giving President Joe Biden the opportunity to appoint a successor who could serve for decades.

Mr Breyer, 83, authored important rulings upholding abortion rights and healthcare access, helped advance LGBTIQ+ rights and questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty but often found himself in dissent on a court that has moved right-ward and currently has a 6-3 conservative majority.

He was appointed to the Supreme Court by Democratic 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.

Mr 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.

United States President Bill Clinton and Stephen Breyer
Stephen Breyer was appointed to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton. Source: SBS

His fellow Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the US Senate, which under the US Constitution, gets to confirm Supreme Court nominees.

A Biden appointee would not change the court's ideological balance but would enable him to refresh its liberal wing with a much younger jurist in the lifetime post.

Mr Biden's Republican predecessor Donald Trump appointed three justices during his four years in office, all of whom were young enough to serve for decades. The Senate, then under Republican control, confirmed the appointment of conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett in 2020 after the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

After Mr Biden defeated Mr Trump in the 2020 election, some liberal activists urged Mr Breyer to step aside while Democrats control the Senate, concerned that if he does not do so, Republicans could block confirmation of his successor in the chamber or a future Republican president could be able to name his replacement and tilt the court even further to the right.

Persistent critic of death penalty

The Senate is split 50-50, with Democrats in control because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote. Confirmation of a justice requires a simple majority vote rather than a previous 60-vote threshold under a change made by Senate Republicans in 2017 when they controlled the chamber and faced Democratic opposition to Mr Trump's first Supreme Court nominee.

Liberal activists are eager to avoid a repeat of what happened when Mr Trump was able to replace Ms Ginsburg, expanding the court's conservative majority.

Mr Breyer authored two important abortion rulings in 2016 and 2020 that struck down restrictions on clinics in Texas and Louisiana. He also was in the majority in the landmark ruling in 2015 that legalised gay marriage.

In recent years, he emerged as a persistent critic of the death penalty and wrote that it was "highly likely" that capital punishment violates the Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

He noted that innocent people have been executed, that capital punishment has been marred by racial discrimination and politics and that death sentences have been imposed arbitrarily.

3 min read
Published 27 January 2022 at 6:26am
Source: Reuters,SBS