A group of 18 legal academics has issued an extraordinary joint letter urging the US supreme court justice Stephen Breyer to retire so that Joe Biden can name his successor.

The intervention came after Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, warned that Biden would not get a supreme court nominee confirmed in 2024 if Republicans regain control of the chamber and a vacancy arises.

With conservatives holding a 6-3 majority on the court, progressive activists have been calling for the liberal Breyer, who at 82 is the oldest member on the bench, to step down this year while Democrats narrowly control the Senate.

“It is time for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to announce his intent to retire,” the legal scholars say in a statement. “Breyer is a remarkable jurist, but with future control of a closely divided Senate uncertain, it is best for the country that President Biden have the opportunity to nominate a successor without delay.”

The signatories include Niko Bowie of Harvard Law School, Erwin Chemerinsky and David Singh Grewal of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law; Daniel Morales of the University of Houston Law Center; Samuel Moyn of Yale Law School, Zephyr Teachout of Fordham University; and Miranda Yaver of Oberlin College.

The statement was released by Demand Justice, a progressive group mounting a concerted campaign to make Breyer consider his position, with everything from reproductive rights to voting rights and gun control potentially at stake.

This week it is among 13 liberal groups, including Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement and Women’s March, publishing an advertisement in prominent media outlets. It says: “Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer should immediately announce his intent to retire from the bench.

“With future control of a closely divided Senate uncertain, President Biden must have the opportunity to nominate a successor without delay and fulfill his pledge to put the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.”

The ad concludes: “If Breyer were replaced by an additional ultra-conservative justice, an even further-right Supreme Court would leave our democracy and the rights of marginalized communities at even greater risk. For the good of the country, now is the time to step aside.”

While serving as majority leader, McConnell blocked Barack Obama from filling a vacancy left by the death of the conservative justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, contending that it would be inappropriate to confirm a supreme court nominee during a presidential election year.

McConnell and his fellow Senate Republicans refused to consider Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, who now serves as Biden’s attorney general. That enabled Donald Trump, the winner of the November 2016 election, to appoint the conservative justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017.

Democrats accused McConnell of hypocrisy last year when he allowed the Senate to confirm Trump’s conservative nominee Amy Coney Barrett to replace the liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September, about six weeks before the 2020 presidential election.

Christopher Kang, co-founder and chief counsel of Demand Justice, told the Guardian’s Politics Weekly Extra podcast: “I think certainly that looking back, and even at the time, a lot of people thought that the prudent thing for Justice Ginsburg to do to ensure her legacy would have been to retire.

“I think this is the same conversation that a lot of progressives are having right now with respect to Justice Breyer, who is one of those three Democratic-appointed justices on the supreme court. He’s 82 years old. He could retire and we believe he should retire now and make way for the first Black woman to serve on the supreme court.

Kang, who served in the Obama White House, added: “But it’s challenging because supreme court justices are nominated right now for life and the decision when to retire is completely up to them.

“I was not part of the decision-making process at the time with respect to whether or not to reach out to Justice Ginsburg. I understand that the White House chose at the time not to do that but I think certainly looking at the impact of what happened, we could be in a very different place.”



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