Justice Stephen Breyer is Retiring From the Supreme Court

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Associate Justice Stephen Breyer is retiring from the Supreme Court, multiple news outlets reported.

mounting pressure from progressives, urging Breyer to retire, has played a pragmatic role
Steven Senne | AP Photo via Business Insider

The 83-year-old liberal justice’s retirement clears a path for President Joe Biden to appoint a successor and comes amid mounting pressure from progressives to have him step down while the Senate is still under Democratic control. 

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Breyer, a California native who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton, is the oldest member of the court and the most senior member of the liberal wing. Supreme Court justices have lifetime appointments, and Breyer has served on the bench for nearly 28 years.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki put out a statement shortly after news of Breyer’s retirement broke.

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“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,” Psaki tweeted. “We have no additional details or information to share from @WhiteHouse.”

CNN and NBC also reported that the White House and Breyer plan to announce his retirement from the high court as early as Thursday. Breyer won’t leave the bench until the Senate confirms a successor and will serve the remainder of the current Supreme Court term, per reports.

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The news brings reassurance to progressives, who had launched a months-long campaign urging Breyer to retire to ensure that Biden can choose his replacement and prevent Republicans from further expanding the 6-3 conservative majority on the court cemented by former President Donald Trump. 

Progressives ramped up pressure on Breyer to step down after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested last year that he would block a potential Biden nominee to the Supreme Court in 2024 and possibly even in 2023 if Republicans regain control of the upper chamber after the 2022 midterms. The comments were reminiscent of McConnell’s blocking of then-President Barack Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. 

Despite the calls, Breyer did not comment publicly on his retirement plans. Last April, he emphasized the importance of keeping the federal judiciary independent from politics, telling an audience at Harvard Law School that jurists are “loyal to the rule of law, not to the political party that helped to secure their appointment.”

Before the Supreme Court started its current term in October 2021, speculation swirled once again about Breyer’s retirement. The justice had been promoting his new book that explored the Supreme Court’s authority, and reporters asked whether he had any plans to step down from the bench. Yet Breyer remained quiet on the matter, repeatedly saying he will make a retirement decision in his own time.

Breyer has established himself as a moderate liberal through his decades-long judicial record and has played a pragmatic role on the Supreme Court among the liberal and conservative justices. 

After Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in September 2020, Breyer took the spotlight as the most senior member of the court’s liberal wing. He wrote the majority opinions for influential cases in the court’s last term, including one that upheld the Affordable Care Act against a Republican-backed challenge and a major free speech case that sided with a former high school cheerleader who had been punished over a profane rant on social media.

When asked during a virtual event in May hosted by Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center what he has learned from his nearly three-decade tenure on the court, Breyer said he realized he had “less power to persuade people than I thought I might.” However, Breyer called it a “privilege” to serve.

Breyer’s retirement gives Biden the chance to fulfill his 2020 campaign pledge to appoint the first Black woman to the Supreme Court.

Calls from Democratic lawmakers to speedily confirm a Biden nominee came pouring in shortly after news surfaced about Breyer’s retirement. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that the Senate will move with “all deliberate speed” to confirm a Biden nominee to the Supreme Court.

Sen. Patty Murray, the third-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said she’s “ready to move as quickly as possible to consider and confirm a highly qualified nominee who will break barriers and make history as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court of the United States.”

The timing of Breyer’s retirement comes ahead of the 2022 midterms, in which Democrats face an uphill battle to protect their narrow House and Senate majorities, as history often gives power to the opposing party of the White House in off-year elections. 

The news also comes as the Supreme Court is in one of its most consequential terms in recent years, dealing with a slew of highly contentious cases on abortion rights, gun rights, religious liberty, and more. The high-profile decisions are expected to come by the end of June.

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