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Biden: First Black woman on Supreme Court will be 'long overdue'

Biden and Breyer spoke Thursday, with Biden reiterating that he will select a Black woman to fill the seat.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden addressed Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's retirement in a Thursday afternoon speech, soon after Breyer officially announced the decision.

The longtime liberal justice's retirement gives Biden his first high court opening, which he has pledged to fill with the historic naming of the court's first Black woman. Biden reiterated the promise Thursday, adding that he intends to hear from senators from both parties to choose a nominee.

Biden said he plans to announce his pick before the end of February. 

“I've made no decision except the one person I will nominate will be someone with 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. It's long overdue."

Ahead of Biden's remarks, Breyer made it official with a letter to the president. He said he will step down when the court rises for its summer recess, assuming a successor has been nominated and confirmed.

RELATED: Shortlist of possible nominees to replace Breyer on Supreme Court

One top potential nominee is Ketanji Brown Jackson, 51, who is Breyer’s former clerk. She worked at the U.S. Sentencing Commission and has been a federal trial court judge since 2013 in the District of Columbia. Biden interviewed her for her current post as an appeals court judge in the D.C. circuit, where she has served since last June.

Early discussions about a successor are focusing on Jackson, U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke to the Associated Press anonymously. 

Breyer's retirement and ensuing replacement by a Biden-picked nominee wouldn't alter the ideological balance of the court, but Supreme Court nominations are still rare enough to result in a pitched battle.

Because of the 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court, Democrats and liberal activists worried that if Breyer were to die or be forced to retire at a time when Democrats did not control the Senate, a Republican majority would block the appointment of his successor until a Republican president was sworn in. 

Breyer has been a pragmatic force on a court that has grown increasingly conservative, trying to forge majorities with more moderate justices right and left of center. His retirement will give Biden the chance to name and win confirmation of a replacement before next fall's election when Republicans could retake the Senate and block future nominees. The party in the White House typically loses seats in Congress in the midterms. 

The Senate is the chamber which confirms federal justices, needing a 51-vote majority. Democrats currently control the Senate with a 50-50 split and Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker. 

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