WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden praised Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who made his retirement official at the White House on Thursday, vowing that his choice to replace him will be a Black woman and that he plans to announce the choice by the end of next month.
Appearing with Breyer before a small group of reporters in the Roosevelt Room just outside the Oval Office, Biden said it was “a bittersweet day for me,” noting that he and Breyer “go back a long way,” and praising him as “an exemplary justice” and “model public servant a time of great division in this country.”
“I’m here today to express the nation’s gratitude to Justice Stephen Breyer for his remarkable career in public service and his clear-eyed commitment to making our country’s laws work for its people,” the president added.
Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, Breyer, 83, is the oldest of the three liberals on a court dominated by conservatives. Stepping to the lectern after Biden, Breyer marveled at America being “a complicated country” and, quoting President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, described an ongoing “civil war” and referred to America as a democratic “experiment” that is still underway.
Declaring that the matter would be determined by future generations, Breyer predicted the country would endure. “I’m an optimist,” he said.
In his official resignation letter, Breyer reflected on his time on the court. “I enormously appreciate the privilege of serving as part of the federal judicial system — nearly 14 years as a Court of Appeals judge and nearly 28 years as a Member of the Supreme Court,” he wrote. “I have found the work challenging and meaningful. My relations with each of my colleagues have been warm and friendly.
“Throughout, I have been aware of the great honor of participating as a judge in the effort to maintain our Constitution and the rule of law,” he concluded.
His decision to retire at the end of this year’s term in June is partly a matter of political pragmatism. Breyer’s brother said in an interview Wednesday that the decision ensures that Biden likely will be able to replace him with a like-minded judge, given that Democrats narrowly control the Senate.
Democrats plan to move expeditiously to confirm Breyer’s replacement in the coming months. Biden, who did not take questions after making his remarks, said he planned to listen to advice from all corners and conduct a rigorous process to determine his choice to replace Breyer. He said he intends to announce his choice “by the end of February.”
“I’ve made no decision except one: The person I will nominate will be someone of extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity,” Biden said. “And that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court. It’s long overdue.”
Republicans, who could regain control of the Senate in November’s midterm elections, are currently powerless to stop a nomination if all 50 Democrats align behind Biden’s pick. Although given the razor-thin margin, the illness or death of any lawmaker has the potential to change that dynamic and allow the GOP to block the nomination.
Although replacing Breyer with another liberal won’t change the makeup of the court, it could help validate Biden and Democrats in the eyes of voters who elected them but have been frustrated by the party’s inability to advance major pieces of its agenda.
Biden’s fulfillment of his campaign promise to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court could solidify his support from a key Democratic constituency. On Wednesday, press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed the possibility that Biden might nominate Vice President Kamala Harris, California’s former attorney general, to fill Breyer’s seat, telling reporters that he intends to run for a second term in 2024 with her as his running mate.
Biden said Harris would be one of the people he looks to for advice on selecting his nominee.
As Biden and Breyer held court at the White House, the 11 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee were scheduled to meet via videoconference Thursday for a preliminary discussion about how they will manage the nomination process and hearings.