U.S. Supreme Court

Justice Breyer, Supreme Court’s oldest member, will retire, reports say

  • Print

Justice Stephen G. Breyer

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer will retire from the Supreme Court, according to media reports that rely on anonymous sources.

The liberal Breyer, 83, is the oldest justice on the court. Among those reporting his plans to retire are NBC News, which broke the news, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Breyer is expected to retire at the end of the term, some reports said. But Breyer doesn’t plan to leave until confirmation of his replacement, CNN reported.

Breyer is expected to formally announce his retirement at the White House as early as Thursday, according to the New York Times.

President Joe Biden previously said he will nominate a Black female justice to the high court.

Breyer has served more than 27 years on the Supreme Court. His opinions “have been those of a moderate liberal, marked by deference to experts, the ad hoc balancing of competing interests and alertness to fundamental fairness,” according to the New York Times.

On the bench, the New York Times reported, Breyer’s “demeanor was professorial, and his rambling questions, often studded with colorful hypotheticals, could be charming or exasperating. But they demonstrated a lively curiosity and an open mind.”

Breyer wrote these notable opinions last term:

• The June 2021 opinion in California v. Texas, which rejected a challenge to the Affordable Care Act based on standing grounds.

• The June 2021 decision in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., which held that a Pennsylvania school district violated a cheerleader’s First Amendment rights when it suspended her from the squad for F-word Snapchat posts.

Breyer is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former federal appeals judge, according to an Oyez profile. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1994 by then-President Bill Clinton.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California at Berkeley School of Law and a frequent ABA Journal contributor, had called for Breyer to retire in a May 2021 Washington Post op-ed.

Chemerinsky and other liberals had pointed to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s failure to retire as instructive. Ginsburg died about two months before the presidential election in 2020. But the then-Republican-controlled U.S. Senate quickly confirmed former President Donald Trump’s conservative nominee, the now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Some liberals questioned Ginsburg’s decision not to retire during former President Barack Obama’s administration in spite of her advancing age and bouts with cancer. Her death at age 87 gave Trump a chance to make his third appointment to the court, cementing a 6-3 conservative majority. Breyer’s decision to step down might have been influenced by Ginsburg’s experience, according to the New York Times.

Currently, Democrats have control of the Senate.

Chemerinsky’s op-ed pointed out that Breyer also wrote these major opinions:

• The June 2016 majority decision striking down two provisions of a Texas abortion law in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. One provision required physicians performing abortions to have admission privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. The other required abortion facilities to comply with hospital-style standards for ambulatory surgical centers.

• A dissent in the June 2015 decision Glossip v. Gross that said it is “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.” Breyer said constitutional defects include the death penalty’s “serious unreliability” as shown by exonerations, arbitrariness in application of the penalty, and “unconscionably long delays” in carrying out capital punishment that undermine its penological purpose.

• A June 2007 dissent in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 that urged empowering the government to end de facto school desegregation.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “These 2 judges are considered front-runners to replace Breyer; who else is getting mentioned?”

ABAJournal.com: “Can the nation endure? Breyer waxes philosophical in retirement press conference; Biden sets timetable”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.