'This Is a Complicated Country': Read Stephen Breyer's Supreme Court Retirement Speech

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer addressed his retirement from the Supreme Court on Thursday, paying homage to the creation of the United States and his faith that the American "experiment" will long endure.

Democrats have been pushing for Breyer to retire since President Joe Biden took office so Biden could nominate another liberal justice to fill his seat. Breyer resisted pressure to retire for months, but he decided to leave the court at the end of this term, which concludes in October.

On Thursday, he appeared with Biden for a speech at the White House and confirmed he was retiring. In announcing his retirement, Breyer focused heavily on the foundation of the country being rooted in the proposition that people were created equal and conceived in liberty. While he acknowledged some people doubt whether the "American experiment" can last, he said he's an optimist and is "pretty sure it will."

Read Stephen Breyer's Supreme Court remarks below:

Thank you Mr. President that was terribly nice and believe me I hold it right here. (gestures to his heart)

I thought about what I might say to you and something I enjoy is talking to high school students, grammar school students, college students, even law school students. And they'll come around and ask me, "What is it you find particularly meaningful about your job? What sort of gives you a thrill?" And that's not such a tough question for me to answer.

It's the same thing, day one almost up today, I don't know how many, but what I say to them is:

Look, I sit there on the bench and afterwe hear lots of cases and ... it takes a while I have to admit but the impression you get, as you well know, this is a complicated country. There are more than 330 million people and I know they used would say, it's every race, it's every religion and she would emphasize this and it's every point of view possible. And it's a kind of miracle when you sit there and see all those people in front of you. People that are so different in what they think and yet they've decided to help solve their major differences under law. And when the students get too cynical, I say go look at what happens in countries that don't do that.

People have come to accept this Constitution and they've come to accept the importance of the rule of law and I want to make another point to them. I want to say look, of course people don't agree, but we have a country that is based on human rights, democracy and so forth. But, I'll tell you what Lincoln thought, what Washington thought and what people today still think – it's an experiment. It's an experiment, that's what they said.

Joanna would pay each one of our grandchildren a certain amount of money to memorize the Gettysburg Address and the reason is that what we want them to pick up on there and what I want students to pick up on is, if I can remember the first two lines, is that "four score and seven years ago our fathers created here a new country, a country that was dedicated to liberty and the proposition that all men are created equal."

Conceived in liberty, those were his words, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. He meant women too. "And we are now engaged in a great Civil War to determine whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

Those are the words I want to see, an experiment and that's what he [Lincoln] thought. It's an experiment. I found some letters that George Washington wrote where he said the same thing, it's an experiment. That experiment existed then because even the liberals in Europe were looking over here saying it's a great idea in principle but it'll never work. But we'll show them it does. That's what Washington thought and that's what Lincoln thought and that's what people still think today.

I say I want you and I'm talking to the students now, I say I want you to pick just this up, it's an experiment that's still going on. And I'll tell you something, you know who will see if that experiment works? It's you, my friend. It's you Mr. High School Student. It's you Mr. College Student. It's you Mr. Law School Student. It's us but it's you, the next generation and the one after that. My grandchildren and their children. They'll determine whether the experiment still works and of course, I'm an optimist and I'm pretty sure it will.

Does it surprise you that that's the thought that comes into my mind today? I don't know, but thank you.

Former President Bill Clinton nominated Breyer to the court in 1994, saying that he would bring a "well-recognized and impressive ability to build bridges in the pursuit of fairness and justice." Only nine senators objected to his nomination and over the past 25 years, he's delivered landmark rulings favoring LGBTQ and reproductive rights, and is largely championed as a "great justice," even by those who agreed that he should retire.

stephen breyer retirement watch live stream time
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer officially announced his retirement from the Supreme Court on Thursday. Breyer sits during a group photo of the Justices at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

After Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's death gave former President Donald Trump a chance for a last-minute nomination, Democrats ramped up pressure for Breyer to retire. His retiring would eliminate the risk of his seat going to a conservative justice, swaying the court even farther to the right.

"If Justice Breyer is to be committed to his judicial ideology, he is going to want to be replaced on the bench by someone who is going to vote to uphold the fundamental right to vote in this country and to protect the rights of the most marginalized members of our society," New York Representative Mondaire Jones told NPR over the summer.

Ginsburg, who was 87 when she died, also faced calls to retire when Obama was in office so he could keep her seat liberal. In 2014, she rhetorically asked Reuters, "who the president could have nominated this spring that you would rather see on the court?" A revered justice for her pioneering work for women's equality, when asked what she believed Obama thought about her future, she told Reuters she thought he would agree that it's a "question for my own good judgment."

Democrats bucked replacing Ginsburg just two months before the presidential election, often citing Republicans' own arguments they made to block Merrick Garland's nomination during Barack Obama's last year in office in 2016, but they failed to stop Judge Amy Coney Barrett from being confirmed.

That gave conservatives an extra seat on the court, changing the makeup from 5-4, to 6-3. Jones told NPR Obama could have had more opportunities to appoint justices if "senior-in-age justices" retired.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to confirm Biden's nominee in a swift and deliberate process. While Republicans could delay the nomination, if Democrats are unified, Republicans won't be able to block a nomination entirely.

However, if a justice is not confirmed before the midterms and Republicans retake control of the Senate, they could sway who Biden is able to nominate.

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