Biden promises 'extraordinary' Supreme Court nominee, 1st Black woman

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WASHINGTON — President Biden marked the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer from the Supreme Court to recommit to his campaign promise to nominate a Black woman to the high court.

“This is sort of a bittersweet day for me,” Biden said, with Breyer standing behind him. The two men have known each other since the mid-1970s, when Biden was a U.S. senator from Delaware and Breyer served as an attorney for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Many years later, in 1994, Biden would oversee Breyer’s confirmation to the Supreme Court as the Judiciary Committee’s chairman.

President Biden, with retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Jan. 27.
President Biden, with retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, on Thursday. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Breyer submitted his resignation formally on Thursday in a letter to the president, but news of his retirement was first made public on Wednesday, leading to rampant speculation about who would replace him. He is expected to leave the court when its current term ends later this year.

Even as he praised Breyer’s “remarkable” career and called him a “model public servant,” Biden looked to the future and the historic nomination he said he would announce by the end of February.

“Our process is going to be rigorous,” Biden said. Top advisers like Ron Klain — once Biden’s top counselor on the Judiciary Committee — are expected to carefully vet potential nominees, aware that Republicans will be looking for any opportunities to mount a challenge.

"The person I will nominate will be someone of extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity,” Biden said. "And that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court."

The top candidates are D.C. appellate court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger. Both are respected jurists with Ivy League pedigrees and legal philosophies well within the Democratic mainstream. Jackson received some Republican support when Biden nominated her last year to the D.C. court.

Ketanji Brown Jackson and Leondra Kruger.
Ketanji Brown Jackson, left, and Leondra Kruger. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Bloomberg via Getty Images, S. Todd Rogers/AP)

Two Black men have served on the Supreme Court in its 232-year history: Thurgood Marshall, nominated by Lyndon Johnson, and Clarence Thomas, nominated by George H.W. Bush.

Whereas President Donald Trump nominated judges who were, for the most part, white and male, Biden has reversed that trend, rapidly diversifying the federal bench. Nominating a Black woman to the highest court in the land will be a capstone of that effort.

“It’s long overdue, in my view,” the president said on Thursday.