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United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced on Thursday he will retire, giving President Joe Biden an opportunity to nominate an a new jurist to the nine-member high court

The 83-year-old Justice Breyer made the announcement in a letter to President Biden on Thursday, saying he his resignation would take effect at the end of the term, usually in late June or early July “assuming the by then my successor has been nominated and confirmed”.

Of his nearly 28 years on the bench, he called the work “challenging and meaningful” and relations with his colleagues “warm and friendly”.

Biden speaking at the White House Thursday praised Breyer’s work as “a leading scholar” and called him “a model of public servant at a time of great division”.

The president repeated an earlier promise that he would nominate a Black woman to the court which would be a first in US history.

Biden said he would announce a pick to replace Breyer before the end of February.

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“Our process is going to be rigorous, I will select the nominee, worthy of justice Breyer’s legacy of excellence and decency,” Biden said.

The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority that has taken up cases dealing with major US judicial precedents, including on abortion, gun rights and religious liberty with rulings that could make significant changes in those areas.

Replacing Breyer with a liberal jurist – as Biden is almost certain to do – likely would not change the balance on the court. It does, however, preempt a further shift to the right feared by liberal activists in the event Democrats lose to Republicans in upcoming elections.

Supreme Court justices serve lifetime appointments and a replacement to Breyer is likely to serve in the role for decades.

The nine justices of the Supreme Court, dressed in formal black robes, pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.There are nine justices on the US Supreme Court including Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, front row, second from right, is the oldest [File: Erin Schaff/Pool via AP]

“Justice Breyer has been a pretty reliable vote for how you’d expect a Democratic-appointed justice to vote on those issues, and we could expect someone Biden nominates would vote the same way,” said Kelsi Brown Corkran, a Supreme Court litigator at Georgetown University Law Center.

As such, Biden’s appointment will mean “probably very little” for the court in terms of its overall outcomes and direction,” Corkran told the Reuters news service.

The abortion and guns cases before the court will be decided before Breyer is expected to step down at the end of the current term, which is usually the end of June.

On abortion, the court’s conservatives seem willing to undermine, or even overturn, the landmark Roe v Wade ruling from 1973 that legalised abortion nationwide in the US. On guns, the conservative justices appear poised to expand the right to carry firearms in public, based on oral arguments last year.

Earlier this week, the justices took up a case to be decided in their next term that could doom university policies considering race in admissions to add more Blacks and Hispanics to their student populations. Conservatives have opposed such affirmative action programmes.

Potential Biden nominees include Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former Breyer law clerk who was confirmed by the Senate last June to serve on an influential US appellate court, and Leondra Kruger, who serves on the California Supreme Court.

Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the civil rights group NAACP’s legal operation, has also been touted as a potential Biden nominee. Other Black women on the list of potential candidates are; US District Judge Julianna Michelle Childs, US Appeals Court Judge Candace Rae Jackson-Akiwumi, and US Appeals Court Judge Eunice Cheryl Lee.

The new justice, if confirmed by the Senate, would likely be on the bench for the start of the court’s next term in October, when it will be preparing to hear the university admissions case.

“The members of the six-justice conservative majority know what they think. A new voice on the other side is unlikely to make them rethink their views,” Carolyn Shapiro, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, who served as a law clerk under Breyer, told Reuters.

Former President Donald Trump named three new conservative justices to the court during his four-year term as president; Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Barrett replaced the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020, shifting the court from a right-leaning 5-4 split to a firmly 6-3 conservative panel.

Source: Al Jazeera

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