Poli-Sci student, professors on Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement


Photo courtesy of CNN

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured here) announced his retirement on Jan. 27.

Grace Lovins, Senior Reporter

On Jan. 27, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer officially announced his retirement from the court after serving a term of nearly 28 years. Justice Breyer, 83, was nominated by former President Bill Clinton in 1994 and plans to serve until the court rises for summer recess, assuming that the next justice has been appointed and confirmed to fill his vacancy.

Breyer, considered to be a liberal-leaning Justice, was known for his pragmatism, advocacy for judicial independence, and interpretation of the Constitution as a “living” document. He was also an accomplished writer, authoring several books on federal regulation and his judicial philosophies.

His retirement will allow President Biden to nominate a successor who could potentially serve for decades which provides benefits to the Democratic party in the long term.

George Zora, a political science major and president of OU’s chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha, notes that Breyer’s decision may have stemmed from Democratic pressure over fear of flipping the U.S. Senate after the midterm elections later this year.

“Right now, the Democrats have control of the Senate so he doesn’t want to pass away at a bad time, retire when it’s too late or when there would be Republicans controlling the Senate or a Republican president which would further shift the balance of the court to the conservative side,” Zora said.

Currently, the Supreme Court consists of 6 conservative-leaning Justices and three liberal-leaning Justices. The appointment of another liberal-leaning Justice would not change the weight of the court but would prevent the possibility of Republicans appointing a justice in the future either after midterm elections or the next presidential election.

Because the weight of the court would not be altered, the buzz around Breyer’s retirement seems to stem from Biden’s campaign promise to nominate the first Black woman in the history of the Supreme Court and reactions from the Republican party.

According to Zora, the appointment of a Black woman to the Supreme Court would not only be a historic first in the country, but would shift the demographic of the Supreme Court and potentially create a lasting change in Breyer’s seat which has been historically filled by Jewish Justices.

Diane Hartmus, J.D. and associate professor in the Department of Political Science, notes that, although Biden’s candidate has not been announced, Republican representatives have already begun to denounce the competency of the candidate as the process has become evidently polarized.

“Unfortunately the process has become so political that, we’re seeing examples right now, we have Republicans who have come out and already spoken negatively about whoever it is that Biden chooses. Biden has not announced a name yet, sure there’s a shortlist, but we have Republicans who are already saying this will be a lesser quality candidate, this will be a left-wing candidate,” Hartmus said.

“It does not matter at this point whom Biden nominates, they will be against that person because this, unfortunately, has become that partisan which is really distressing to those of us who’ve loved and watched and studied the court for a long time.”

Assistant professor in the department of political science and advisor for Pi Sigma Alpha, Cody Eldredge, Ph.D., stated that the premature consensus of Biden’s candidate being unqualified for the Supreme Court raises a lot of issues.

“We don’t know who the candidate is or what her qualifications are so to assume that she’s only there because of her skin is pretty egregious. We can expect to see a lot of ugliness, a lot of divisiveness, a lot of fights,” Eldredge said.

“In the last couple days, strangely enough, the minority leader Mitch McConnell has spoken out and said he’s willing to work with Democrats provided that the candidate is not regarded by Republican parties as being extreme. Usually, Mitch McConnell can be a bit crafty with these things so I’m not sure if that pledge is sincere but hopefully we won’t see a repeat of past nomination fights.”

In terms of timing, we should expect to see President Biden persist in the confirmation of his appointee before the midterm elections given the fear of Democrats losing control of the Senate. Both Eldredge and Hartmus stated there is potential for Republicans to attempt to block the nominee’s confirmation but is unlikely given the party is currently the minority in the Senate.

President Biden states he plans to announce his nomination by the end of February and speculations about who the next Justice could be has been widely circulating. As previously mentioned, this will not have a significant impact on the current weight of the court but presents the Democratic party with an opportunity for both a historic nomination and the chance to appoint a liberal-leaning Justice who could serve on the court for decades to come.