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AOC just took the Stephen Breyer retirement watch to another level

CNN logo CNN 6/14/2021 Analysis by Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large
Frank J. Larkin, Kevin McCarthy, John Roberts, Elena Kagan standing next to a man in a suit and tie: U.S. President Donald J. Trump (L) greets U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer during the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives January 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. This is the first State of the Union address given by U.S. President Donald Trump and his second joint-session address to Congress. © Win McNamee/Getty Images U.S. President Donald J. Trump (L) greets U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer during the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives January 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. This is the first State of the Union address given by U.S. President Donald Trump and his second joint-session address to Congress.

The final days of a Supreme Court term are bathed in drama, with the justices typically holding the release of their rulings in the highest profile cases until the last moment before they (and much of official Washington) heads out of town for the summer.

This year is no different, as the court has yet to issue its rulings on a case dealing with the Voting Rights Act, another challenge to the Affordable Care Act and a campaign finance case involving so-called "dark" money.

But there's added intrigue -- and, for Democrats, agita -- in the waning weeks of this court session as speculation about the future plans of Justice Stephen Breyer have begun to swirl. That chatter went from behind-the-scenes whispers to much more over the weekend, when CNN's Dana Bash pressed New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her view on whether Breyer should stay or go.

Here's the exchange:

Bash: So, just to be clear, you do think that Justice Stephen Breyer should retire at the end of this term?

Ocasio-Cortez: I -- it's something I would think about, but I would probably lean towards yes.

But, yes, you're asking me this question, so I would just -- I would give more thought to it, but I'm inclined to say yes.


Video: Ocasio-Cortez 'inclined' to agree that Justice Breyer should retire (CNN)

Which, well, wow!

While Ocasio-Cortez's colleague -- fellow New York Rep. Mondaire Jones -- is already on the record calling on Breyer to retire, the decision by AOC, one of the most popular and best-known liberals in the country, to add her voice will significantly ramp up the pressure on Breyer to make a decision.

Why the rush, you ask? Well, liberals are worried that they might lose their tenuous Senate majority in the 2022 midterm election, which, if it came to pass, would make it very difficult to get a liberal on the court to replace Breyer. Only by him retiring at the end of this session would President Joe Biden be assured of having a Democratic-controlled Senate to confirm his replacement and preserve the three liberal-leaning seats on the court.

AOC's surprising bluntness about Breyer is likely influenced by the case of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg, who had been politely encouraged by some Democrats to consider retirement during the presidency of Barack Obama, passed away two months before the November 2020 election -- allowing then-President Donald Trump to replace her with Justice Amy Coney Barrett, solidifying the court's clear conservative majority.

The nightmare scenario for Democrats is that a) Breyer stays on the court through 2024 b) A Republican wins the White House and the Senate is in GOP hands and c) the next president appoints another conservative to replace Breyer, making the court a lopsided 7-2 in favor of conservatives. Short of that, the likes of AOC fret that a Republican-controlled Senate in 2023 would mean a very hard road to confirmation for literally anyone that Biden picked.

The problem for Democrats is that it's not at all clear that calls for Breyer to retire at the end of this term make that prospect more likely. And in fact, it's possible that Breyer takes issue with voices that are trying to usher him out the door and decides to stick around for a while.

As CNN's Ariane de Vogue, Manu Raju and Phil Mattingly noted in May:

"Senior Democrats are treading carefully around Justice Stephen Breyer these days, worried that a progressive push to get him to retire could either anger him or come off as overtly political -- in either case potentially dashing their hopes of getting a young new liberal on the Supreme Court in his place ...

" ... But Breyer -- at age 82 the senior liberal on the Supreme Court -- is keen on keeping the high court free of political influence. And at a moment when a Democratic president gets to nominate any new justice, and Democrats hold the Senate's tie-breaking vote on confirmation, an open campaign to squeeze him out could have the opposite of the intended effect."

It's extremely unlikely Breyer will say anything in response to AOC's call for him to step down. (The Supreme Court is purposely non-responsive to the big political story of any given day.) But look to see how Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (New York) and prominent liberals like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders handle the inevitable questions about Breyer's future. Do they dismiss AOC's words? Ignore them? Agree?

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