Supreme Court

Justice Stephen Breyer to Officially Retire on Thursday

Federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed in April to succeed the 83-year-old

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will officially step down from the bench at 12 p.m. ET Thursday.

Breyer confirmed he would be relinquishing his duties as justice in a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

“It has been my great honor to participate as a judge in the effort to maintain our Constitution and the Rule of Law," he wrote.

In January, Breyer announced he would be retiring from the Supreme Court at the end of the term. The court said the remaining decisions would be announced Thursday. Among them are Biden v. Texas, which will determine whether the Biden administration can end the so-called "Remain in Mexico" policy requiring migrants to wait outside the U.S. for their asylum hearings, and West Virginia v. EPA, a major climate change case that could determine whether the federal government has the authority to curb greenhouse has emissions.

Federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed in April to succeed the 83-year-old. Brown will be the first Black woman on the court when she is sworn in at midday Thursday.

Brown's replacement of Breyer doesn't change the ideological makeup of the court. Conservatives outnumber liberals by 6-3, and Donald Trump’s three nominees pushed the court even further to the right.

Breyer joined the court in 1994, appointed by President Bill Clinton. Along with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he opted not to step down the last time the Democrats controlled the White House and the Senate during Barack Obama’s presidency. Ginsburg died in September 2020, and then-President Trump filled the vacancy with a conservative justice, Amy Coney Barrett.

President Joe Biden has pledged to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court, and a seat will open up when Justice Stephen Breyer retires. Having a more diverse court will help with key decisions coming up on issues like affirmative action, says defense attorney and former prosecutor Bernarda Villalona. "With diversity, you bring ideas that another person may not have because they haven't walked in your shoes," she said.

In more than 27 years on the court, Breyer was an active and cheerful questioner during arguments, a frequent public speaker and quick with a joke, often at his own expense. He made a good natured appearance on a humorous National Public Radio program in 2007, failing to answer obscure questions about pop stars.

He was known for his elaborate, at times far-fetched, hypothetical questions to lawyers during arguments and he sometimes had the air of an absent-minded professor. He taught antitrust law at Harvard earlier in his professional career.

He also spent time working for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy when the Massachusetts Democrat was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. That experience, Breyer said, made him a firm believer in compromise.

Still, he could write fierce dissents, as he did in the Bush v. Gore case that effectively decided the 2000 election in favor of Republican George W. Bush. Breyer unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to return the case to the Florida courts so they could create “a constitutionally proper contest” to decide the winner.

At the end of a trying term in June 2007 in which he found himself on the losing end of roughly two dozen 5-4 rulings, his frustrations bubbled over as he summarized his dissent from a decision that invalidated public school integration plans.

“It is not often that so few have so quickly changed so much,” Breyer said in a packed courtroom.

His time working in the Senate led to his appointment by President Jimmy Carter as a federal appeals court judge in Boston, and he served there for 14 years. His 87-9 high-court confirmation was the last with fewer than 10 dissenting Senate votes.

Breyer’s opinions were notable because they never contained footnotes. He was warned off such a writing device by Arthur Goldberg, the justice for whom Breyer clerked as a young lawyer.

“It is an important point to make if you believe, as I do, that the major function of an opinion is to explain to the audience of readers why it is that the court has reached that decision,” Breyer once said. “It’s not to prove that you’re right. You can’t prove that you’re right; there is no such proof.”

Born in San Francisco, Breyer became an Eagle Scout as a teenager and began a stellar academic career at Stanford, graduating with highest honors. He attended Oxford, where he received first-class honors in philosophy, politics and economics.

Breyer then attended Harvard Law School, where he worked on the Law Review and graduated with highest honors.

He worked in the Justice Department’s antitrust division before splitting time as a Harvard law professor and a lawyer for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Breyer and his wife, Joanna, a psychologist and daughter of the late British Conservative leader John Blakenham, have three children — daughters Chloe and Nell and a son, Michael — and six grandchildren.

NBC/The Associated Press
Contact Us