Biden Celebrates Breyer, Affirms Vow to Name Black Woman to Supreme Court
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday affirmed his campaign pledge to nominate the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying that while he does not yet know who his eventual nominee will be, such a choice was “long overdue.”
He also took time to praise retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, a longtime friend and associate, as a model public servant.
Breyer joined Biden at the White House, a day after news broke of the 83-year-old’s upcoming retirement.
During his remarks, Biden called the announcement of Breyer’s retirement “a bittersweet day for me.”
“Justice Breyer and I go back a long way,” he said, “But that’s another story.”
“I’m here today to express the nation’s gratitude to Justice Stephen Breyer, for his remarkable career in public service. And his clear eyed commitment to making our country’s laws work for the American people. And our gratitude extends to his family, for being partners in his decades of public service. I particularly want to thank his wife, Dr. Joanne Breyer, who is here today and who has stood by him for nearly six decades with her fierce intellect, good humor and enormous heart.”
Biden recalled that during Breyer’s confirmation hearing, the future justice stated “the law must work for the people.”
The president, who was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, remembered Breyer “explaining to us his faith that our complex legal system has a single purpose – to help the people who make up our country.”
“Today, Justice Breyer announces his intention to step down from active service after four decades on the federal bench and 28 years on the United States Supreme Court. His legacy includes his work as a leading scholar and jurist in administrative law, bringing his brilliance to bear to make government run more efficiently and effectively and includes his stature as a beacon of wisdom on our Constitution.
“Fair to the party before him, courteous to his colleagues … and he’s written landmark opinions on topics ranging from reproductive rights and health care to voting rights, laws protecting our environment and the laws that protect our religious practices. His opinions are practical, sensible and nuanced, reflecting his belief that the job of a judge is not to lay down a rule, but to get it right.
“I think he’s a model public servant, at a time of great division in this country,” the president said.
In a brief letter to the president dated Thursday, Breyer said he intends his retirement to take effect when the court begins its summer recess, typically in late June or early July, “assuming that by then my successor has been nominated and confirmed.”
Decision on Replacement to be Made by the end of February
Before inviting Justice Breyer to say a few words, Biden laid out the process he will follow to select Breyer’s replacement.
“Choosing someone to sit in the Supreme Court, I believe, is one of the most serious constitutional responsibilities of a president,” Biden said, adding that the process will be rigorous and that no decision has been made except one – “I will nominate someone of extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity … and that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Biden said Vice President Kamala Harris will play a significant role in the selection process, and that he is going to invite senators from both parties to offer “their ideas and points of view” on prospective nominees.
Breyer Reflects on Nation’s Diversity and the Fragile Experiment of Democracy
Breyer, a humble man even after his many years on the bench, appeared to marvel at the fuss being made over his retirement.
“Thank you, Mr. President. That is terribly nice. … It’s wonderful,” he said as he removed his face mask and stood before the microphone.
Breyer spoke of his love of speaking to students and said one of the most common questions he’s been asked over the years is, What is meaningful about your job? or put another way, What gives you a thrill?
“The answer has always been the same thing,” Breyer said. “From day one to day … whatever … and what I say to them is I sit there on the bench and after a while the impression you get is that this is a complicated country of more than 330 million people.
“And my mother used to say, ‘America is composed of every race. every religion’ – and she would emphasize this – ‘it’s every 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 acknowledged that some of the students in his audiences respond cynically to such promises, but he said he reminds them “to look at what happens in countries that don’t follow this path.”
“People have come to accept this constitution, and they’ve come to accept the importance of a rule of law. And I want to make another point to them. I want to say ‘Look, of course people don’t agree.’ We have a country that is based on human rights, democracy and so forth. But I’ll tell you what Lincoln thought and Washington thought and what people today still think: it’s an experiment. It’s an experiment. That’s what they said.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln commemorated a cemetery by both recalling the Founders’ dream of founding a country dedicated to liberty and the proposition all were created equal, and by describing the then-unfolding Civil War as a quest “to determine whether any nation so conceived … can long endure.”
“I found some letters that George Washington wrote where he said the same thing. It’s an experiment. … And that’s what people still think today.” Breyer said. “And what I say to students today is, ‘I want you to pick this up, to understand it’s an experiment that’s still going on’ … and that it’s up to their generation, and the one after that, and my grandchildren and their children, to determine whether the experiment still works.
“Of course, I’m an optimist, and I’m pretty sure it will … but that’s what comes into my mind today,” Breyer said.