Biden to nominate first Black woman to sit on supreme court by end of February

Joe Biden intends to announce his nominee to become the first Black woman to sit on the US supreme court by the end of February, the president said on Thursday at a formal White House event to mark the retirement of the liberal-leaning justice Stephen Breyer.

Lauding the retiring justice as a “beacon of wisdom” and a “model public servant at a time of great division in this country”, Biden pledged to replace him with someone worthy of Breyer’s “legacy of excellence and decency”. He said the nominee would have “extraordinary qualifications, character, experience and integrity, and that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States supreme court.”

He added: “It is long overdue in my view.”

Biden’s confirmation that he is still studying the résumés of candidates and has yet to make his pick will do little to settle nerves among progressives still smarting from Donald Trump’s three supreme court appointments. Many Democrats want the president to emulate the warp speed with which the Trump administration drove through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett in less than six weeks following Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in September 2020.

The Washington Post, citing an anonymous source, said that the majority leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, is aiming for a similar timeline.

Replacing Breyer with a like-minded justice is seen by many Democrats as critical in preserving the already beleaguered rump of liberals on the bench. The retiring justice is one of only three such individuals on the nine-justice court, and they are so outnumbered that the country now faces drastic changes in several key areas from abortion to guns and affirmative action.

Despite the pressure for haste among his party’s members, Biden insisted that he would be “rigorous” in choosing the nominee. He would listen to advice from senators and meet candidates, indicating a selection process that is likely to take weeks not days.

For his part, Justice Breyer is hoping that his successor can be confirmed and in place within the next six months. In his formal retirement letter to Biden, he said he would step down at the start of the court’s summer recess in June or July, “assuming that by then my successor has been nominated and confirmed”.

Speaking in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Breyer made a lyrical paean to American unity. Recalling a speech he likes to deliver to school students, he said that the US was an experiment that is still going on.

“My children and grandchildren will determine whether the experiment will last, and as an optimist I’m pretty sure that it will,” he said.

Biden first committed himself to promoting a Black woman to the nation’s highest court at a presidential debate against Trump during the 2020 presidential campaign. The promise was reportedly made after intense prodding by the prominent South Carolina Democrat Jim Clyburn, who endorsed Biden the following day in a move that helped propel him into the White House.

Though the race is now on to confirm Breyer’s replacement before the court’s term reaches its summer recess, there are large hurdles ahead. Looming over the proceedings is the evenly divided 50-50 split in the US Senate, the chamber that will preside over the confirmation hearings of whomsoever Biden picks.

The Democrats hold the casting vote with Vice-President Kamala Harris, but they will need to keep all 50 senators on board during the process. That is a challenge that has eluded the Biden administration in recent months with the high-profile defections of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema over vital issues ranging from the president’s Build Back Better legislation to overcoming the filibuster to secure essential voting rights reforms.

To reduce any risk of Democratic splits, Schumer will also be looking to lure Republican moderates such as Susan Collins from Maine and Lisa Murkowski from Alaska to their side.

Then there are the nationwide midterm elections in November which will inevitably place a partisan political pall over the confirmation process. Republicans have already begun to test out lines of attack, predicting that Biden’s nominee will be, in the words of the senator from Florida Rick Scott, “a radical liberal with extremist views”.

Rightwing Twitter feeds have also lit up with claims that Biden’s choice of a Black woman would constitute unlawful sex and race discrimination. Those playing the affirmative-action card were forgetting that in 1980 Ronald Reagan pledged to pick the first woman to sit on the nation’s highest court, appointing Sandra Day O’Connor the following year.

Republican leaders will be hoping that by portraying Biden’s choice as a culture wars threat to American values they will help to drive out the party’s base to the polling booths on 8 November.

Similar calculations will be at play on the Democratic side. Party strategists will want to leverage the nomination of a Black woman as an energizing factor at the polls for important elements of its electorate who include African Americans, women and progressive voters.

Comments are closed.