Stephen Breyer: US Supreme Court justice to retire

Retirement gives President Joe Biden chance to appoint own justice to highest court

Justice Stephen Breyer has served on the Supreme Court for more than two decades.  AFP
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Stephen Breyer, a long-time liberal Supreme Court justice, is planning to retire, several US news organisations reported on Wednesday, bringing about a chance for President Joe Biden to appoint his first justice to the nation's highest court.

News of his retirement was first reported by NBC, and CNN later reported that Mr Breyer will depart in June after serving for more than two decades on the nine-member court.

Mr Breyer wrote important rulings upholding abortion rights and healthcare access, helped advance LGBT rights and questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty but often found himself in dissent on a court that has moved to the right.

During his 2020 election campaign, Mr Biden pledged to nominate a black woman to fill any Supreme Court vacancy during his presidency, which would be a first.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted shortly after the news reports were released on Wednesday.

“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,” she wrote.

She said that the White House is awaiting a statement from Mr Breyer before speaking on the issue.

An official announcement of his retirement is expected soon.

Mr Breyer's departure opens up a chance for Mr Biden to nominate his own justice, and he is likely to appoint another liberal to solidify a continued 6-3 conservative-to-liberal power balance in the highest court in the country.

Mr Breyer has been a justice since 1994, appointed by former president Bill Clinton. He is the oldest member, at 83 years old, and his departure will make conservative Justice Clarence Thomas the oldest at 73.

Along with the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mr Breyer opted not to step down the last time the Democrats controlled the White House and the Senate during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Ginsburg died in September 2020, and then-president Donald Trump filled the vacancy with a conservative justice, Amy Coney Barrett.

Mr Trump was able to nominate three justices during his presidency.

The president's fellow Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the US Senate, which under the US Constitution must confirm Supreme Court nominees, and it may be a challenge to confirm a new justice in a midterm election year.

“President 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,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.

Most Supreme Court nominee processes take months, but Ms Barrett was confirmed in 30 days.

Among the potential nominees that would meet Mr Biden's pledge of nominating a black woman for the position are California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, US Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, prominent civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill and US District Judge Michelle Childs.

“The president has stated and reiterated his commitment to nominating a black woman to the Supreme Court and certainly stands by that,” Ms Psaki said in a press briefing on Wednesday.

News agencies contributed to this report

Updated: May 20, 2022, 11:46 PM