In his spare time, Justice Stephen Breyer enjoyed taking the bench at humorous “mock trials” of characters such as Macbeth and Richard III for Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. The case usually turned on epic battles over succession.
Now Washington is about to be consumed by the question of who will inherit Breyer’s crown following his reported decision to retire from the US supreme court. At 83, he is its oldest member, one of three liberals outnumbered by six conservatives.
This is a perfectly timed political gift for Joe Biden, aware that choosing a supreme court justice is one of the most consequential decisions that any president can make.
After a year in the White House, Biden was limping with a stalled legislative agenda, a tenacious pandemic and Vladimir Putin threatening Ukraine. He was a tired brand in desperate need of a relaunch, a tough ask at the age of 79.
Breyer has provided it, instantly changing the conversation. “This has to feel like a political elixir right now,” observed Chuck Todd, host of MSNBC’s Meet the Press Daily show.
A vacancy on the highest court enables Biden to rally the Democratic base and begin to cement a legacy that, despite early ambitions, had recently looked to be in jeopardy. Although the ideological balance of the court will not change, Biden could choose a young liberal who will serve for decades.
The Senate, which must approve his choice, is divided between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans with Vice-President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaker vote. Breyer has given it enough time to confirm the president’s pick before the midterm elections could shift the balance of power.
Democratic divisions have been on display of late but a supreme court vacancy typically unites a party like nothing else. Even senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who broke ranks over the Build Back Better plan and voting rights, have voted for every Biden nominee to the lower courts so far. Both will presumably regard this confirmation as an easy way to win back some favour with angry liberals.
Not for the first time, however, Biden has raised expectations. At a debate in the 2020 Democratic primary, he declared: “I’m looking forward to making sure there’s a Black woman on the supreme court, to make sure we, in fact, get every representation.” His judicial appointments so far have been historically diverse, and Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters after the news of Breyer’s imminent retirement broke that Biden “certainly stands by” his promise.
The upshot is that if he now nominates anyone other than a Black woman, there will be disappointment on the left. Sean Eldridge, founder and president of the progressive group Stand Up America, said on Wednesday: “President Biden promised to appoint the country’s first-ever Black woman supreme court justice, and he must make good on that promise.
“The president and vice-president’s voters are watching eagerly to see that he follows through and makes history with his first supreme court nomination.”
Potential candidates include the US circuit judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, California supreme court justice Leondra Kruger, civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill and US district judge Michelle Childs, a favourite of the South Carolina congressman James Clyburn, a Biden ally.
Notably, when Jackson was confirmed last year to the influential US court of appeals for the DC circuit, often seen as a springboard to supreme court, the Republican senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted with Democrats in favour.
Carl Tobias, Williams chair in law at the University of Richmond, said: “I expect that the Democrats will remain united, as they have so far, because all Democratic members, including Senators Manchin and Sinema, have voted for all of Biden’s lower court nominees.
“Most GOP senators have voted against many Biden lower court nominees. The major exception is Lindsey Graham, who has voted for many Biden lower court nominees in committee and on the floor. Senators Collins and Murkowski have also voted to confirm a number of Biden lower court nominees. If the Democrats vote together, they do not need GOP votes.”
It remains an open question whether a handful of Republicans might back Biden’s nominee given the politicisation of the court in recent years – from Republicans blocking Barack Obama’s pick Merrick Garland to the rancour that surrounded Donald Trump’s three appointments, and the court’s imminent decision on the constitutional right to abortion.
In an ominous statement on Wednesday, Graham said: “If all Democrats hang together – which I expect they will – they have the power to replace Justice Breyer in 2022 without one Republican vote in support. Elections have consequences, and that is most evident when it comes to fulfilling vacancies on the supreme court.”
Meanwhile, Carrie Severino, president of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, fired the first shots of a partisan battle to come. “The left bullied Justice Breyer into retirement and now it will demand a justice who rubber-stamps its liberal political agenda,” she said. “And that’s what the Democrats will give them, because they’re beholden to the dark money supporters who helped elect them.”
Yet it is Republicans who waged a multi-generational project to tilt the court in their favour with the help of the Federalist Society, which created a pipeline of young, ideologically rightwing lawyers. Trump’s release during the 2016 election of a shortlist of judges for the court helped him secure the conservative base; his three justices are likely to be his most lasting legacy.
Democrats were criticised for being slow to wake up to the threat and lacking similar aggression. Now, thanks to Breyer’s retirement, they find themselves with the unaccustomed comfort of having political momentum on their side.