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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday said he plans to name a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer by the end of February and reiterated his intention to nominate a Black woman for the first time to serve on the highest U.S. judicial body.
"This is a bittersweet day for me," Biden said during an appearance with the justice at the White House, noting that he has known Breyer since the 1970s.
"I'm here today to express a nation's gratitude to Justice Stephen Breyer for his remarkable career in public service," Biden added.
Breyer formally announced his retirement in a letter to Biden made public on Thursday, saying he plans to depart at the conclusion of the Supreme Court's current term, typically at the end of June, assuming his successor has been confirmed by the Senate. Lawmakers disclosed his retirement on Wednesday.
"It's my intention to announce my decision by the end of February. I have made no decision," Biden said.
"That person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the Supreme Court. It's long overdue in my opinion," Biden added.
His retirement after 27 years gives Biden his first chance to fill a vacancy on the nine-member court but will not change its ideological balance. The court's 6-3 conservative majority has shown an increasing willingness to reshape the law on contentious issues including abortion and gun rights. Biden's Republican predecessor Donald Trump appointed three justices during his single four-year term in office.
"I enormously appreciate the privilege of serving as part of the federal judicial system," Breyer wrote in the letter.
"Throughout, I have been aware of the great honor of participating as a judge in the effort to maintain our Constitution and the rule of law," Breyer added.
"I think he is a model public servant at a time of great division in this country."
Democrats, who hold a razor-thin Senate majority, aim to quickly confirm Biden's pick in a time frame similar to the one-month process that the chamber's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, used in 2020 to confirm Trump's third appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, according to a source familiar with the planning.
Republicans are seeking to regain control of the Senate in the Nov. 8 congressional elections, underscoring the need for speed from the perspective of Biden's party. McConnell has indicated he would block any Biden nominations to the court if his party regains the Senate majority.
Biden as a candidate for president promised to nominate the first Black woman to fill any Supreme Court vacancy. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday said Biden will honor that pledge.
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 U.S. appellate court, and Leondra Kruger, who serves on the California Supreme Court. Another potential contender is Michelle Childs, a federal district court judge in South Carolina who Biden already has nominated to the U.S. appeals court in Washington.
Breyer, the Supreme Court's oldest member, was appointed to his lifetime post by Democratic President Bill Clinton. He authored important rulings upholding abortion rights and healthcare access, helped advance LGBT rights and questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty. He often found himself in dissent on a court that has moved ever rightward.
Democratic lawmakers and liberal activists on Wednesday praised the jurist's decision to step aside, allowing Biden to install a younger member who could serve for decades in the lifetime post.
For some activists, the decision came as a relief as they had publicly urged Breyer to depart while the Democrats control the Senate, concerned that if he did not do so, Republicans could block confirmation of his successor or a future Republican president could be able to name his replacement. That scenario would result in a 7-2 conservative majority.