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Conservatives hold a 6-3 Supreme Court majority. Did liberal justices pave the way?

Justice Stephen Breyer is facing pressure from fellow liberals to be strategic about his retirement decision

Barack Obama hugs Ruth Bader Ginsburg before delivering his 2011 State of the Union address.
President Barack Obama hugs Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Capitol Hill in Washington, prior to delivering his State of the Union address in January 2011. From left are, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Obama, Ginsburg, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
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As the Supreme Court’s latest term drew to an end earlier this summer, court watchers like myself were waiting for more than the last few rulings. We were also standing by for retirement news from Justice Stephen Breyer, who, at 82, is the oldest member of the court.

For months, liberals have been calling on Breyer to retire and, in so doing, clear the path for Democratic President Joe Biden and the Democrat-led Senate to confirm a liberal replacement. The thinking goes that if he waits too long to retire, then conservatives will control the search for his replacement.

Liberals can point to former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to justify these concerns. She ignored calls to retire while President Barack Obama was in office and then passed away while still on the bench, which enabled former President Donald Trump to pick her replacement.

Her decision will give the conservative wing of the court the advantage in battles over culture war issues for years to come, argued David Leonhardt in a recent New York Times newsletter.

“Ginsburg’s decision may cost millions of American women access to abortion — as well as shape policy on voting rights, climate change, gun control, religion and other issues,” he said.

In recent decades, liberal justices, in general, have not made strategic retirement decisions, Leonhardt argued, claiming that they’ve prioritized their personal interests over the needs of their party. Conservative justices, on the other hand, seem to proactively retire in order to be certain they won’t die on the bench.

“That’s part of the reason that Democratic presidents have so rarely had the chance to flip a court seat,” Leonhardt wrote.

I did some research into recent departures from the Supreme Court, and I can see where Leonhardt is coming from. Ginsburg’s decision not to retire under Obama looms large in recent history, especially when you compare it to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement under Trump at age 82.

However, conservatives have also benefited greatly from other factors, including the Republican-controlled Senate’s refusal to confirm Obama’s pick to replace former Justice Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly in 2016 at age 79. It’s also notable that Republicans controlled the White House from 1981 all the way until 1993.

What I kept returning to as I researched shifts of power on the Supreme Court is that history is full of surprises. In recent decades, many justices who were appointed by Republican presidents became liberal over time. And many liberal justices have joined with their colleagues on rulings that seem to be very conservative, including in the religious freedom sphere.

It’s safe to say that calls for Breyer to retire won’t die down anytime soon. I hope the situation inspires more people to explore the Supreme Court’s interesting past, instead of just worrying about the future.


Fresh off the press

Republican Sen. John Kennedy, of Louisiana, raised eyebrows last week when he asked a nominee for a position in the Justice Department whether he believes in God. Organizations like American Atheists claim the question violated the Constitution. Amid the conflict, I wrote about what legal scholars have previously said about religion’s role in confirmation hearings.

On Friday, President Joe Biden unveiled his picks for a few key faith-related positions in his administration and I wrote about his choices. If confirmed, Rashad Hussain, who currently works for the National Security Council, would be America’s first Muslim ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.


Term of the week: Hajj

Hajj refers to the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, undertaken by around 2 million Muslims in non-pandemic years. Every able-bodied Muslim is required to complete the ritual at least once in their life, since participating in the Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, just 60,000 people took part in the event this year, which took place in mid-July, according to CNN.


What I’m reading...

Facebook is amping up its outreach to people of faith, according to Reuters. A few weeks ago, company leaders held a virtual summit for religious leaders and, earlier this year, they released a new prayer tool to all U.S. groups. The tool enables group members to request prayers; those who agree to pray get reminders about it from Facebook.

Like many teenagers, Jalue Dorje loves video games, rap music and Pokemon cards. Unlike his peers, he’s been recognized as a reincarnated religious leader by members of his faith community. Because of that recognition, Dorje will join a Buddhist monastery in India after he graduates high school in 2025. I really enjoyed The Associated Press’ look at his fascinating life.

Michael Dimock, president of Pew Research Center, recently published an essay explaining why the organization invests so many resources into religion surveys. His thoughts on the value of tracking faith-related trends in the U.S. and around the world remind me of things I’ve said in the past when people ask me why I became a religion reporter.


Odds and ends

In June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to draft a document on the sacrament of communion, a move that many saw as an attack on President Joe Biden, who, although he is Catholic, supports abortion rights. Last week, Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life hosted an online discussion about the bishops’ decision, which helped me better understand the surrounding debate.

The Olympics is the ultimate tearjerker. I’ve teared up dozens of times watching everything from beach volleyball to water polo. Here are videos of a few of my favorite moments so far: 1. Swimmer Caleb Dressel celebrating one of his many gold medal performances with happy tears. 2. Detroit Lions quaterback David Blough watching his wife, Melissa Gonzalez, qualify for the 400-meter hurdles semifinal. 3. Fencer Lee Kiefer freaking out about winning gold.