Breyer, a former Harvard law student who also taught at the school, is the court’s oldest judge at 82. The election of President Joe Biden and the slim Democratic majority in the Senate have sparked discussions that Breyer, appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994, could retire soon, possibly as early as the summer.
Although he said nothing publicly about his plans, the speech could be read as a kind of farewell speech, filled with calls for the public to see the judges as more than “junior politicians”.
He noted, for example, that despite the court’s conservative majority, the court over the past year has refrained from getting involved in the 2020 elections, won a victory at abortion clinics from Louisiana and rejected efforts by former President Donald Trump to end legal protections for immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
Trump has appointed three judges to the court, the latest of whom, Amy Coney Barrett, replaced the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg in October.
Breyer acknowledged that conservative views prevailed in other decisions.
“These considerations convince me that it is wrong to view the Court as just another political institution,” he said.
Breyer’s speech was part of the Harvard Scalia lecture series named after the late Judge Antonin Scalia. Breyer and Scalia were high court colleagues for more than two decades.