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Reports: Liberal US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to Retire


FILE - Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer listens during a forum at the French Cultural Center in Boston, Feb. 13, 2017.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, for 27 years a staunch liberal voice on the country's highest court, has decided to retire, according to news accounts in Washington.

The retirement of the 83-year-old Breyer will hand President Joe Biden his first chance at filling an open seat since former President Donald Trump appointed three conservatives that tipped the court's ideological balance sharply to the right with a 6-3 majority.

Breyer, according to the news accounts, plans to remain on the court through the end of its current term in June, or until a replacement is named by Biden and confirmed by the politically divided Senate.

Breyer's formal retirement announcement is expected on Thursday.

"There have been no announcements from Justice Breyer," Biden said. "Let him make whatever statement he's going to make, and I'll be happy to talk about it later."

Biden, unlike Trump when he ran for the presidency in 2016 and for reelection in 2020, has not released a list of judges he might consider for appointment to the nine-member Supreme Court.

But during his run for the presidency, following his selection of then-Senator Kamala Harris, of Jamaican and South Asian descent, as his vice president, Biden said he would name the court's first Black woman.

Among the names being floated as potential nominees are California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, prominent civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill and U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs, whom Biden has nominated to be an appeals court judge.

Breyer's departure won't change the court's ideological balance. Biden, a Democrat, will be making the appointment, and Democrats have the slimmest of majorities in the Senate, relying on Harris for her tiebreaking votes in a chamber split evenly between 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats.

FILE - Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks to reporters in Ankara, Turkey, Jan. 19, 2019.
FILE - Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks to reporters in Ankara, Turkey, Jan. 19, 2019.

Republican Senator Lindsay Graham quickly acknowledged that Republicans have no chance of blocking a Biden nominee if all Democrats remain united in support of the president's nominee.

"If all Democrats hang together — which I expect they will — they have the power to replace Justice Breyer in 2022 without one Republican vote in support," Graham said. "Elections have consequences, and that is most evident when it comes to fulfilling vacancies on the Supreme Court."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Breyer "is, and always has been, a model jurist. He embodies the best qualities and highest ideals of American justice: knowledge, wisdom, fairness, humility, restraint."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 7, 2021.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 7, 2021.

"His work and his decisions as an associate justice on the biggest issues of our time — including voting rights, the environment, women's reproductive freedom, and most recently, health care and the Affordable Care Act — were hugely consequential," Schumer said.

Schumer promised quick action on Biden's nominee, saying his choice "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."

While a liberal voice on the court, Breyer has in recent years tried to forge majorities on key rulings with more moderate justices right and left of center.

He has written two major opinions in support of abortion rights on a court closely divided over the issue and has laid out his growing discomfort with the death penalty in a series of dissenting opinions in recent years. Before he retires, the court, with its conservative majority, could sharply curtail abortion rights in the U.S. in rulings that are expected to be handed down by June.

Breyer's views on displaying the Ten Commandments on government property illustrate his search for a middle ground. He was the only member of the court in the majority in both cases in 2005 that barred Ten Commandments displays in two Kentucky courthouses but allowed one to remain on the grounds of the state Capitol in Austin, Texas.

Some material in this report came from The Associated Press.