President Joe Biden said Thursday he would announce a nominee by the end of February to fill the vacancy of retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who officially confirmed that he plans to step down at the end of the court’s current term.
Breyer, in a letter to the White House, wrote that his decision to retire from the Supreme Court would take effect in late June or early July, “assuming that my successor has been nominated and confirmed.”
Those scheduling items sharpened the task for Senate Democrats, who have said they would move quickly through the confirmation process for Breyer’s successor. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee planned to meet virtually later Thursday.
A late February date to announce a nominee would avoid clashing with congressional work to resolve government funding for the rest of fiscal 2022. The current continuing resolution expires on Feb. 18.
At the White House event, Biden described a plan for his selection process in broad terms and reaffirmed the commitment he made during the presidential campaign to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme 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 to the United States Supreme Court,” Biden said.
“It’s long overdue,” Biden added.
Biden said he has “made no choice at this point” but has been studying candidate backgrounds and writings. He said he plans to invite senators from both parties to offer their ideas and points of view, as well as leading scholars and lawyers and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“I will listen carefully to all the advice I’m given. And I’ll study the records and former cases carefully. I’ll meet with the potential nominees,” Biden said. “Once I select a nominee, I’ll ask the Senate to move promptly on my choice.”
Biden declined to take questions from the press at the announcement, saying that this was a day for Breyer, “his remarkable career in public service, and his clear-eyed commitment to making our country’s laws work for its people.”
“Everyone knows that Stephen Breyer has been an exemplary justice,” Biden said. “His opinions are practical, sensible and nuanced. It reflects his belief that the job of a judge is not to lay down a rule but to get it right.”
Those were Biden’s first comments about Breyer’s retirement, which was first reported Wednesday, because he waited for the official word from Breyer.
Breyer, whose retirement letter was two paragraphs long, focused his comments on what he tells students when he speaks with them, the idea that it will be future generations who determine if the American experiment “still works.”
Breyer said his career gave him the impression that the United States is a complicated country, with more than 330 million people of every race, religion and point of view possible.
“And 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.’”
Breyer, 83, proved a reliably liberal vote on a high court that was always dominated by conservatives. Biden will not be able to alter the overall ideological balance of the court, where conservatives have a 6-3 advantage after former President Donald Trump’s three appointments in four years.
Biden used the moment to recall when he first met Breyer, who then was a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee and later became chief counsel for Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Breyer was famous for biking across Washington virtually every day for face-to-face meetings with the chief counsel of the ranking Republican member.
“And over breakfast they’d discuss what would they do for the country together, whereas in those days, we tried to do things together,” Biden said. “That spirit stuck with me when I took over the Judiciary Committee as chair after Sen. Kennedy’s tenure.”
Biden recalled that he was chairman for Breyer’s confirmation hearings. “We were joking with one another when he walked in: Did we ever think that he would have served decades on the court and I’d be president of the United States, and the day he came in and retired?” Biden said about the event Thursday at the White House.
“And he looked at it, and, anyway, I won’t tell you what he said, joking,” Biden said.