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Justice Stephen Breyer announces his retirement

With the official announcement, President Biden says he’ll have a nominee by end of February.

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a letter to the White House, the Supreme Court’s most senior liberal, Justice Stephen Breyer, officially announced his plans Thursday to retire at the end of the term and once his successor had been named and confirmed. 

News of Breyer’s impending retirement leaked Wednesday but the justice’s letter was sent to the White House and released to reporters Thursday afternoon. Shortly after Breyer released his letter of retirement, he delivered remarks with President Joe Biden at White House. 

Breyer was appointed to the court in 1994 and at 83 is the court’s oldest member. Standing as one of only three liberals on the supermajority-conservative court, Democrats had urged Breyer to avoid taking the same route as the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and resign when a Democrat could appoint his successor. 

In typical Breyer fashion, his remarks had a conversational feel with personal anecdotes about his wife and grandchildren. He opened by addressing a question most frequently asked of him by students — emphasizing the special fondness he has for speaking with them — saying he found the most meaningful part of his work as a justice is seeing the complex and diverse country all coming together under one set of laws. 

“It's a kind of miracle when you sit there and see all those people in front of you — people that are so different in what they think — and yet they've decided to help solve their major differences under law,” Breyer said. “And when the students get too cynical, I say go look at what happens in countries that don't do that … People have come to accept this constitution, and they've come to accept the importance of a rule of law.” 

Breyer remarked that the country was still an experiment, mentioning the Gettysburg Address, which he said his wife paid his grandchildren to memorize.

“We are now engaged in a great civil war to determine whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure,” Breyer said. 

He continued: “It's that next generation and the one after that my grandchildren and their children, they'll determine whether the experiment still works, and of course, I am an optimist, and I'm pretty sure it will.” 

Biden spoke fondly of Breyer, calling it a “bittersweet day” for him. 

“Today, Justice Breyer announces his intention to step down from active service after four decades, four decades, on the federal bench and 28 years on the United States Supreme Court,” Biden said. “His legacy includes his work as a leading scholar and jurist and administrative law, bringing his brilliance to bear to make government run more efficiently and effectively. It includes his stature as a beacon of wisdom on our constitution and what it means. Through it all Justice Breyer has worked tirelessly to give faith to the notion that the law exists to help the people.” 

Biden and Breyer have a long history of working together, starting with the Senate Judiciary Committee where Breyer worked first as special counsel and then chief counsel. Biden voted for Breyer’s confirmation on the First Circuit and then presided as chairman during his confirmation hearings to the high court. 

Apart from professional accolades for Breyer, Biden extolled the justice’s love for biking, which reportedly cost him his first chance on the court when he was passed up by President Bill Clinton after showing up to an interview following a serious crash. 

“Beyond his intellect and hard work and legal insight, he was famous for biking across Washington virtually every day for face-to-face meetings with a Republican chief counsel, the ranking Republican council,” Biden said. “Over breakfast, they’d discuss what would they do for the country together — whereas, in those days, we tried to do things together. That spirit stuck with me when I took over the Judiciary Committee.” 

Biden said he had high hopes for Breyer’s career as a justice when he appeared before the Judiciary Committee, and that Breyer had exceeded those hopes. 

Moving to the already rampant speculation as to who Biden would tap to fill Breyer’s seat, Biden confirmed his campaign promise to nominate the first Black woman to the court. 

“I've been studying candidates' backgrounds and writings,” Biden said. “I've made no decision except one: the person I will nominate will be someone of the extraordinary qualifications, character, experience, and integrity and that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court. It's long overdue in my view.” 

Biden said he would invite opinions from senators on both sides of the aisle to weigh in as well as leading scholars and lawyers. He also noted that Vice President Kamala Harris would be advising him during the selection process. The final nominee will be announced before the end of February. 

“It is my intention to announce my decision before the end of February,” Biden said. “I have made no choice at this point. Once I select the nominee, I'll ask the Senate to promptly on my choice. In the end, I will nominate a historic candidate, someone who is worthy of Justice Breyer’s legacy, and someone who, like Justice Breyer, will provide incredible service on the United States Supreme Court.” 

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