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US Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer to retire aged 83, sparking rush to confirm new liberal appointee


The US Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer is to retire at the age of 83, sparking a likely push by Democrats to confirm a replacement for him.

One of only three remaining Democrat-appointed justices on a nine-seat court dominated by conservatives, Justice Breyer’s planned retirement will spark a push by Joe Biden to get another liberal justice confirmed before November’s midterm elections.

The deadline is key as the Democrats are likely to lose control of the Senate, and top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell has indicated he plans to block any Biden nominations to the court.

Justice Breyer’s expected retirement makes the Supreme Court confirmation drive “priority one” in the Senate’s 2022 agenda, one Senate Democratic aide told Reuters.

The justice will retire when the court’s current term wraps up in June, though Senate Democrats indicated they may not wait until his departure to clear a nominee, who would be sworn in as Breyer formally steps down.

Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer (Photo: Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty)

Replacing the justice will maintain the present ideological makeup of the court because a Biden nominee is expected to be a liberal just as the retiring justice is.

By moving now, Democrats will be hoping to avert the risk of the court slipping even more under GOP control over the next few years, after Donald Trump managed to replace a liberal justice, a swing voter and a blocked liberal Obama nominee with three stalwart conservatives.

“With this Supreme Court vacancy, President Biden has the opportunity to nominate someone who will bring diversity, experience and an evenhanded approach to the administration of justice,” said Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which takes the lead in the confirmation process.

Mr Biden had pledged on the campaign trail to name the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. He will also be keen to pick a non-controversial nominee, given the Senate is currently split evenly with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, two centrist Democrats, have repeatedly caused issues for Biden by siding with Republicans to hold up his agenda.

“Every justice should have an opportunity to decide what he or she is going to do and announce it on their own,” Mr Biden said Wednesday. “Let him make whatever statement he’s going to make and I’ll be happy to talk about it later.”

A White House decision on a nominee could take several weeks, Biden aides and allies said.

The 6-3 conservative majority on the court has also stymied much of President Biden’s domestic plan, handing him successive defeats over immigration reform, Covid-19 vaccine mandates and a Covid-related ban on evictions.

Appointed by Bill Clinton in 1994, Justice Breyer has served on the court for 27 years. He has been a reliable vote on the liberal wing of the court, upholding access to abortion, affirming non-discrimination protections for LGBT+ people, and voting in favour of equal marriage.

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Liberal interest groups expressed relief at Justice Breyer’s retirement, fearing that another seat on the court could be lost if left beyond November’s midterms.

“Justice Breyer’s retirement is coming not a moment too soon, but now we must make sure our party remains united in support of confirming his successor,” Demand Justice Executive Director Brian Fallon said.

Joni Madison of LGBT+ group Human Rights Campaign said: “Justice Breyer’s tenure on the Court established him as a defender of LGBTQ+ civil rights and his decisions delivered important progress toward our country’s founding ideal of a more perfect union that is inclusive and equitable for all. The Human Rights Campaign is deeply grateful for Justice Breyer’s impact.

“The stakes could not be higher for LGBTQ+ people, women, and Black and brown communities when it comes to the next Supreme Court Justice.

“President Biden’s first nominee has big shoes to fill, as they will shape the future of progress on LGBTQ+ equality and play an outsized role in defending the rights and protections that have already been won.”

Derrick Johnson of the NAACP said: “Our Supreme Court desperately requires balance. The Court was already predisposed against civil rights. Then Donald Trump, aided by a Senate majority that violated all traditions and customs, installed three justices who have taken it in an even more extreme direction that threatens our civil rights for a lifetime.

“It is time to restore the integrity and legitimacy of the Court and its role as protector of civil rights. Too much lies in the balance, including voting rights, equal educational opportunity and reproductive choice

“This vacancy provides President Biden with the historic opportunity to appoint someone with a strong record on civil and human rights. In his first year, President Biden has appointed highly qualified judges whose backgrounds are extremely underrepresented on federal courts around this country. He should do the same for the highest court in the land.”

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