Joe Biden confirmed on Thursday that he will nominate a black woman with “extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity” to replace Stephen Breyer on the US Supreme Court.
Breyer, 83, said in a resignation letter that he will step aside at the end of the current term, typically in late June or early July, assuming his successor has been nominated and confirmed.
Breyer’s departure gives Biden the opportunity to appoint another liberal justice to fill the seat, which would maintain the nine-member bench’s current split of six conservative judges and three liberals.
The president said at an event at the White House that the opportunity to choose a Supreme Court justice was a “serious constitutional responsibility” and vowed to conduct a “rigorous” process to select a successor “worthy of Justice Breyer’s legacy of excellence and decency”.
Biden said he had made no decision about who he would pick, but reaffirmed a campaign trail promise to nominate the first black woman to serve on America’s highest court.
“The person I will nominate will be someone with extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity, and that person will be the first black woman ever nominated United States Supreme Court,” Biden said. He said he intended to name his pick by the end of February.
Speaking alongside Breyer, Biden praised the jurist for his 28-year tenure on the Supreme Court and four decades as a federal judge.
“I think he is a model public servant at a time of great division in this country,” Biden added.
Thursday marked the two men coming full-circle. As chair of the Senate judiciary committee in the mid-1990s, Biden, then a senator, oversaw Breyer’s confirmation hearings following his nomination to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton. He was confirmed by the Senate in July 1994 in a bipartisan vote of 87-9.
The confirmation process for Breyer’s successor is likely to be contentious, as the nomination of federal judges has become increasingly partisan and rancorous in recent years.
Presidents nominate Supreme Court justices but their picks must be confirmed by a simple majority of the 100-member Senate. Democrats control the Senate by the narrowest of margins, 50-50, with Kamala Harris, vice-president, able to cast a tiebreaking vote.
Democratic congressional leaders have vowed to move quickly to process a Biden nominee, though they must walk a political tightrope if they are to ensure the total support of all 50 Democratic senators and possibly win the backing of a handful of Republicans. Biden on Thursday said he would “invite senators from both parties to offer their ideas and points of view” in the nomination and confirmation process.
Joe Manchin, the conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia, broke with his party to support Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, while Susan Collins, the centrist Republican lawmaker from Maine, crossed party lines to oppose another Trump nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, in 2020.
As a candidate for president, Biden vowed to nominate a black woman to fill any Supreme Court vacancy that arose during his White House tenure.
The president has not said who he intends to name as Breyer’s replacement, but court watchers have already speculated that Ketanji Brown Jackson, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, is among the front runners for the post. A Harvard Law School graduate, Jackson clerked for Breyer during the Supreme Court’s 1999-2000 term.
Breyer, a Harvard Law School graduate who worked as a law professor before embarking on a career on the federal bench, had faced growing calls from progressives to retire following Biden’s election.
Those calls intensified after the death of liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just weeks before the 2020 election, which gave Trump the opportunity to push through Barrett’s nomination and tip the balance of the Supreme Court decisively in favour of conservatives.
Progressives have fretted that the new balance of power on the bench will lead to a flurry of decisions that could row back abortion rights and expand Americans’ access to guns, among other rulings.
Rana Foroohar and Edward Luce discuss the biggest themes at the intersection of money and power in US politics every Monday and Friday. Sign up for the newsletter here