Stephen Breyer, one of three liberal justices on the US Supreme Court, plans to retire, paving the way for President Joe Biden to name the first Black woman to the nation’s highest court.
Breyer, 83, will step down after the court’s current term, which ends in June, US media reported on Wednesday.
The New York Times said Breyer will formally announce his retirement at an event at the White House with Biden on Thursday.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, while declining to confirm Breyer was leaving, said the president “certainly stands by” his campaign promise to nominate a Black woman in the event of a Supreme Court vacancy.
The Supreme Court is currently split between six conservatives and three liberals. Breyer’s retirement will allow Biden to nominate another liberal-leaning jurist to the court.
Supreme Court justices serve for life unless they step aside voluntarily, and nominees need the approval of the Senate.
Democrats and Republicans each hold 50 seats in the Senate, but Democrats are in the majority through the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Democrats risk losing the Senate in November’s midterm elections, however, giving greater urgency to the process of confirming Breyer’s successor.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised Breyer’s judicial record in a statement and said the Senate will confirm Biden’s eventual nominee “with all deliberate speed.”
“For virtually his entire adult life, including a quarter century on the US Supreme Court, Stephen Breyer has served his country with the highest possible distinction,” Schumer said. “He is, and always has been, a model jurist.
“He embodies the best qualities and highest ideals of American justice: knowledge, wisdom, fairness, humility, restraint.”
Among the leading candidates to replace Breyer are Ketanji Brown Jackson, a US Court of Appeals judge, and Leondra Kruger of the California Supreme Court.
Breyer is the oldest justice on the court and was nominated in 1994 by Democratic former president Bill Clinton.
Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump nominated three justices to the court, sealing the 6-3 right-leaning majority.
Breyer is the senior member of the court’s liberal wing and has carved out a legacy of pragmatism in the hundreds of opinions he authored in his long career.
The justice, who carries an annotated copy of the Constitution in his jacket pocket, has been a fierce opponent of the death penalty, and ruled in favor of abortion rights, same-sex marriage and environmental protection.
‘They take the oath to heart’
Born on August 15, 1938 in San Francisco, Breyer was educated at the prestigious universities of Stanford, Oxford and Harvard.
He began his legal career in 1964 as a clerk to then-Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg. He went on to work in the Justice Department on antitrust matters before serving as an assistant special prosecutor on Watergate in 1973.
He taught at Harvard until 1980, when he got the nod from then-president Jimmy Carter to serve on the federal court of appeals in Boston, where he remained for more than a decade, eventually becoming its chief judge.
Breyer was initially considered for a Supreme Court spot in 1993, but his candidacy was marred by a revelation that he had failed to pay taxes for a part-time housekeeper.
A year later, he became Clinton’s second nominee to the high court, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The pair would end up shoring up the liberal-progressive wing of the court for more than two decades.
Ginsburg died at the age of 87 while still serving on the court, allowing Trump to make his third nomination.
Breyer insisted in his rulings on assessing the real-world implications when deciding cases, rejecting the strict reading of the Constitution favored by some of his peers.
He bristled at the notion of partisanship on the court.
“My experience of more than 30 years as a judge has shown me that, once men and women take the judicial oath, they take the oath to heart,” he said in a 2021 lecture at Harvard Law School, his alma mater.
“They are loyal to the rule of law, not to the political party that helped to secure their appointment.”
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