Supreme Court Justices Pose For Formal Group Photo WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 23: Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on April 23, 2021. Seated from left: Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Standing from left: Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett. (Photo by Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images) Pool / Pool
Erin Schaff-Pool/Pool/Pool/Getty Images

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Justice Stephen Breyer Stepping Down

It’s Thursday, January 27th, and this is your Morning Wire. Listen to the full podcast:

1) Justice Stephen Breyer Stepping Down

The Topline: On Wednesday, it was reported that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer would be retiring.

Quote Of The Day: “I’m looking forward to making sure there’s a black woman on the Supreme Court.”

– President Joe Biden, February 2020

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Justice Breyer

NBC News first reported that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is going to retire at the end of the current term, which is in June. President Joe Biden briefly commented on the news, but said people should wait for Breyer to make a statement.

Breyer is one of three remaining liberal justices, and his decision to retire after more than 27 years on the Supreme Court will allow Biden to appoint a successor.

The Democrat president will likely replace the liberal Supreme Court justice with another liberal justice.

What Happens Now

With a split Senate, President Biden could look to nominate a moderate liberal justice in an attempt to receive the bipartisan support necessary to confirm a justice.

However, the President already laid the groundwork for identity politics to play a role during his campaign, saying he would nominate a black woman if the opportunity presented itself. Some also say that Vice President Kamala Harris could be Biden’s Supreme Court pick, though it appears unlikely at the moment. 

This is another potentially divisive obstacle the Biden administration must face during a midterm election year, amidst already low approval numbers, historic rates of inflation, and continued foreign policy challenges.

The timing of Breyer’s retirement is potentially political, given that he’s retiring under a Democrat president.

Stephen McCarthy/Contributor/Sportsfile via Getty Images

2) Human Rights Organizations Condemn Harsh COVID Policies

The Topline: Several nations’ COVID restrictions against unvaccinated people have drawn condemnation from human rights organizations.

Italy

Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently made Italy’s restrictive COVID policies much stricter, issuing a vaccine mandate for everyone over the age of 50. He’s also ordered that, from now until June 15, unvaccinated Italians can’t use public transportation, and people over 50 cannot go to work, if they can’t prove they have been vaccinated – even if they wear a mask and show a negative COVID test. He also denied access to anything but the most basic necessities to those without a “super green pass,” which means the individual has had three COVID shots. 

In response, Amnesty International Italia issued a statement raising serious alarm over the move. While the statement upholds the right of limited mandates, it says, “states should focus on increasing voluntary vaccine adherence” and calls on the government to let unvaccinated people work or use public transportation “without discrimination.”

The statement reads in part: “The government must continue to ensure that the entire population can enjoy its fundamental rights, such as the right to education, work, and medical treatment … [They] should not be penalized.”

The group said the government must also guarantee the right to peacefully protest against COVID-19 policies without taking “any act of unjustified aggression or violence.”

Other Countries

In Ghana, the Health Ministry considered instituting a system of vaccine passports to access public accommodations. 

The chapter of the International Human Rights Commission that oversees the country responded, saying, “Vaccination should be by choice and not by force. … [W]e think that it is advisable for the government to allow ordinary Ghanaians to decide, rather than imposing it on them.” 

Human Rights Watch condemned Cambodia for requiring everyone from age 6 and up to show proof of vaccination to enter virtually any public or private accommodation, including grocery markets. However, the group says the government didn’t educate the public about the rules. 

Eight human rights groups, including Amnesty International, signed a statement last May accusing the Cambodian government of using COVID-19 measures to quash independent journalism. 

Some international observers warn that the restrictions can pose a threat to democracy. 

Human Rights Watch condemned the military government of Myanmar, where the military overthrew the democratically-elected National League for Democracy last year. It then charged the leader of that party, Aung San Suu Kyi, with several infractions, including breaking COVID restrictions during her campaign events.

US-JUSTICE-POLITICS-BREYER The US Supreme Court on January 26, 2022 in Washington, DC. - Stephen Breyer, 83, one of three liberal justices on the Supreme Court, plans to retire, paving the way for President Joe Biden to name a replacement to the nation's highest court. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images) OLIVIER DOULIERY / Contributor

OLIVIER DOULIERY / Contributor / AFP via Getty Images

3) Supreme Court To Hear Affirmative Action Cases

The Topline: On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases relating to the use of race preferences in college admissions. 

Quote Of The Day: “…I think you probably have a majority that’s very skeptical of Grutter. Grutter departed from the original text of the Fourteenth Amendment and its promise that equal protection under the law.”

– Legal analyst Erin Hawley, former clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts

The Lawsuits

Harvard is being accused of discriminating against Asian American students in admissions and the group is asking the Supreme Court to also look at whether the school is violating Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination for places that receive federal funding. 

The University of North Carolina is being accused of violating the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. The group says the university violates this by taking into account the race of students when making admissions decisions. 

Harvard is a private university and UNC is public, meaning the implications for the rulings could be very wide ranging. Lower courts previously ruled that the schools could consider race in admissions.

On Tuesday, Harvard’s president sent out a message to members of the Harvard community, saying, “Those who challenge our admissions policies would ask us to rely upon a process far more mechanistic, a process far more reliant on simple assessments of objective criteria.” The statement said Harvard will continue to defend their admissions policies.

Precedent

In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled on a case involving race and admissions, called Grutter v. Bollinger. They found that the University of Michigan Law School’s use of race in its admissions process did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act.

In the majority opinion, however, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”  

There was a similar case decided in 2013 in which the court ruled in the other direction. In Fisher vs. University of Texas, a caucasian female student argued she was denied admission based on race. In a 7-1 majority, the high Court sided with the student saying the university’s admission policy did not meet a strict standard.

In taking up the Harvard and UNC cases, the Supreme Court will essentially decide whether or not it should overrule the Grutter decision.  

The high Court put both of the cases together for argument, which is expected to take place next term. There likely won’t be a decision until next summer.

Drew Angerer/Staff/Getty Images

Other Stories We’re Tracking

2024

A new poll found that a generic Republican candidate would beat President Joe Biden by nearly 10 points in 2024. The Politico-Morning Consult poll found that 46% said they’d vote for a Republican candidate in 2024, while 37% said they’d vote for Biden. However, the matchup becomes a statistical tie when Biden is pitted against either Donald Trump or Mike Pence.  

Masks

Children in New York must again wear masks in school. One day after a New York court struck down the state’s mask mandate, the state announced the rule was back in effect, resulting in mass confusion in schools across the state. On Tuesday, the state informed schools they “must continue to follow the mask rule” because the state’s appeal of Monday’s ruling would “result in an automatic stay” and thus keep the rule in place.

Neil Young

Musician Neil Young said he wants streaming service Spotify to cancel Joe Rogan or else lose his music. Young told his management team in a letter: “I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform. They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” Young has accused Rogan of spreading COVID “misinformation.” On Wednesday, Spotify reportedly began preparing to remove Young’s music from the platform.

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