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Supreme Court Justice Retires: who is Justice Stephen Breyer?

The liberal judge is retiring at a crucial juncture in Biden's presidency as Democrats fear for another Ruth Bader Ginsburg situation.

Breyer, one of three liberal justices on the US Supreme Court, plans to retire, US media reported Wednesday.
Saul LoebAFP

Justice Stephen Breyer, the oldest judge in the Supreme Court, is expected to announce his retirement from the Supreme Court. Appointed in 1994 during the Clinton presidency, Breyer was confirmed by a staggering 87 to 9 vote in the Senate. This margin of ease seems incredible in a political atmosphere of mistrust and anger.

The resignation, which has yet to be formally announced, gives President Biden the opportunity to nominate a younger liberal judge who should ensure the liberal representation in the court for years to come.

What is his background?

His education was in the esteemed English University of Oxford and graduated from Harvard in 1964. Before becoming a Supreme Court judge, he held positions on the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

A long-standing pragmatist, Breyer presented himself as a moderate in the Court, and was not involved in many land-mark rulings that he authored. He also took a stand against some serious constitutional debates, such as arguing the death penalty may violate the eight amendment, and consistently voted in favor of abortion protection.

"As I have previously written, the solution may be for this Court to directly examine whether the death penalty violates the Constitution," he said in July 2020.

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Was he forced into retirement?

Democrats are likely conscious of the fallout from the passing of veteran judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died just months before the 2020 election. President Trump nominated a conservative judge, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court. Thus, the Democrats had a two-vote swing against them for future lawmaking, which has hamstrung plans from vaccine mandates to abortion rights. A confirmation of another liberal judge is crucial for them.

Breyer has been described as "upset" with how his imminent retirement has been managed.

Biden himself would not be drawn on speculation that Breyer was retiring, saying, “There have been no announcements from Justice Breyer.” There has been no outright denial by the White House and an announcement is due later on Thursday.

If the Democrats were to lose the midterm elections later this year, which is looking quite likely, then trying to approve a liberal judge at that point would be out of the question. The last time this scenario happened, Republicans refused to allow President Obama's pick of Merrick garland to join the Senate, leaving the seat vacant until Trump won the presidency in 2016.

This is assuming that all Democrats would support Biden's next pick, considering senators like Joe Manchin and Kristen Sinema have been blocking all the Democrat legislation in the last six months. Concessions may have to be made with them to get their votes, putting yet more pressure on the president in what is already a crucial year into his faltering tenure.