President Joe Biden reaffirmed his vow to name the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, in his first remarks acknowledging Justice Stephen Breyer’s intention to retire from the nation’s highest court.
“I've made no decision except one: The person I nominate will be someone of extraordinary qualifications, character, experience, and integrity,” Biden said, “and that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court.”
Biden said the process for selecting the nominee “worthy of Justice Breyer’s legacy” would be “rigorous,” and that the selection of a Black woman justice was long overdue.
He also introduced a timeline for the process. Biden said he planned to nominate a justice by the end of February while also saying he didn’t currently know who he’d select.
Biden’s remarks on Thursday largely highlighted Breyer’s career, calling him a “beacon of wisdom” and a “model public servant in a time of great division in this country.”
“He’s written landmark opinions on topics ranging from reproductive rights to healthcare to voting rights to patent law,” Biden said in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, with the 83-year-old Breyer standing beside him. “It reflects his belief that the job of a judge is not to lay down a rule, but to get it right—to get it right.”
Biden highlighted Breyer’s four-decade career in the judiciary, noting that he had cast a vote himself for Breyer to join the Supreme Court, quoting the justice’s remarks during his own confirmation hearing: “The law must work for the people.”
The West Wing has maintained a disciplined silence on Breyer’s intentions since news of his retirement at the end of this Supreme Court term was first broken on Wednesday, telling reporters only that it was up to the justice to determine when and if he would retire—and nobody else.
“It has always been the decision of any Supreme Court Justice if and when they decide to retire, and how they want to announce it,” tweeted White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated on Wednesday, “and that remains the case today.”
It was not until Breyer, who has served on the court for more than a quarter-century, released a letter on Thursday morning announcing his impending retirement that the White House acknowledged the coming vacancy.
“I enormously appreciate the privilege of serving as part of the federal judicial system,” Breyer wrote in a letter to Biden, calling his relationships with the court’s other members “warm and friendly.”
“Throughout, I have been aware of the great honor of participating as a judge in the effort to maintain our Constitution and the rule of law,” Breyer concluded.
Breyer’s retirement will not change the philosophical balance of the Supreme Court, which currently heavily favors its six-justice conservative wing. But Biden nominating Breyer's replacement will—if confirmed—prevent further attrition of Democrat-nominated justices on the court. Former President Donald Trump named three justices to the court in his single term in office, including a replacement for liberal stalwart Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
While the Democratic Party controls the U.S. Senate, they have the chamber by the narrowest of margins. They can't afford to lose a single vote if every Republican votes against the nominee. Still, Democrats seem to think they will be able to keep their caucus in line to confirm an eventual nominee.
In his remarks, Biden sought to forestall any potential complications in the selection of a nominee to replace Breyer, noting that Vice President Kamala Harris, a former state attorney general and member of the Senate Judiciary, would assist in the selection.