Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who announced in January his intent to retire at the end of the court’s current term, sat on the bench for his final hearing of oral arguments on Wednesday.
At the conclusion of those arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts took a moment to issue an emotional tribute to his outgoing friend and colleague, USA Today reported.
With a cracking voice as though he were on the verge of tears, Roberts also elicited laughter by referencing Breyer’s at-times absurd hypotheticals in paying homage to his tenure on the high court.
Emotions and humor
According to C-SPAN‘s audio recording of the just-concluded oral arguments, Roberts said, “Now, as many of you may know, Justice Breyer has announced his retirement from the court, effective when we rise for the summer recess.”
“That means that the oral argument we just concluded is the last the court will hear with Justice Breyer on the bench,” he continued with a wavering voice. “For 28 years, this has been his arena for remarks profound and moving, questions challenging and insightful, and hypotheticals downright silly.”
“This sitting alone has brought us radioactive muskrats and ‘John the Tiger Man,'” Roberts joked.
USA Today noted that Breyer on Tuesday had hypothesized about a “most dangerous criminal” named “John the Tiger Man” in relation to a case dealing with the transport of federal prisoners for medical treatments, while the Associated Press reported that the radioactive muskrat reference was in relation to comments Breyer had made in a case involving federal workers cleaning up toxic waste near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state.
Breyer will be appropriately honored per tradition
“Now, at the appropriate time,” Roberts continued, “we will, in accordance with tradition and practice, read and enter into the record an exchange of letters between the court and Justice Breyer marking his retirement.”
“For now, we leave the courtroom with deep appreciation for the privilege of sharing this bench with him,” the chief justice concluded.
Replacement already waiting on the sideline
The 83-year-old Justice Breyer, nominated to the court in 1994 by then-President Bill Clinton, may well have sat on the bench for the final time Wednesday, though his work is not yet officially done until all of the opinions for cases heard during the current session have been released.
He will be immediately replaced on the high court once he has stepped aside by incoming Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was nominated by President Joe Biden in February and confirmed by the Senate in April.