Jan 27, 2022 - Podcasts

What Justice Breyer's retirement means for U.S. politics

News organizations are reporting that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is planning to retire at the end of the current term. This gives President Biden his first chance to determine who's on the high court. And it's an opportunity to follow through on his campaign promise to appoint the first Black woman to the Supreme Court.

  • Plus, how Breyer's retirement could affect the midterm elections.
  • And, the GOP courts Latino voters in Florida.

Guests: Axios' Sam Baker and Sophia Cai; Republican National Committee communications director Danielle Alvarez; Lucas Acosta, coalitions director and senior spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee; and Pew Research Center's Mark Hugo Lopez.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Go deeper:


NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, January 27th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: the GOP courts Latino voters in Florida.

But first, today’s One Big Thing - how Justice Breyer’s retirement will reshape the supreme court and this year’s elections.

News organizations are reporting the Supreme court justice Stephen Breyer is planning to retire at the end of the current term. This gives President Biden his first chance to determine who's on the high court. And it's an opportunity to follow through on his campaign promise to appoint the first black woman to the US Supreme court. Here to explain what's next is Axios’ resident SCOTUS expert Sam Baker. Hi Sam.

SAM BAKER: Good morning Niala.

NIALA: Sam, I think the first thing we should start with is how does Breyers leaving change the composition of the court? Especially given how much recent conversation there's been about the politicization of the Supreme Court.

SAM: His departure and assuming Biden is able to replace him with another liberal justice will not change the overall ideological makeup of the court. The two big effects here are first of all, preventing it from getting any worse for Democrats, right? If they're able to fill this seat with someone who's younger than 83, uh, then odds are that they'll be there for a while. And so, you know, Democrat’s 6-3 minority is unlikely to become a 7-2. And then the bigger changes will play out over the longer term. You know, this is someone who could be there for 30 years. That's where some of the differences with Breyer’s jurisprudence on say criminal justice, deference to law enforcement, those sorts of things really could come into play down the line.

NIALA: What do you think Breyer’s legacy will be?

SAM: Breyer is, he's a very interesting guy. I think his legacy will be workman-like for lack of a better word. He didn't get the chance to write very many big majority opinions. No liberals do. The biggest part of his legacy might be his retirement. I mean, Ruth Bader Ginsburg left this incredibly long legacy as a pioneering trailblazing female figure in the law. But her decision not to retire has ended up probably being the first bullet point in that legacy. And by making a different decision here, Breyer keeps that seat in liberal hands and in the long run, that might be what people remember the most.

NIALA: So let's talk about who's being considered to replace him. What do we need to know about?

SAM: So the first thing you need to know is that this is very, very early in. The list will get much, much, much longer and different people will be on and off. Uh, so with those caveats that the attention has focused early on two people. Leondra Kruger, who was a justice on the California Supreme court. Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was a judge on the DC circuit court of appeals, a very powerful court. She was confirmed to her current seat by a 53 vote, uh, majority in the Senate. Which is a pretty strong argument in her favor now.

NIALA: Sam Baker, our resident Supreme Court expert for Axios Today. Thank you.

SAM: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds the political ramifications of Biden’s Supreme Court pick.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo. One of the biggest decisions we’re awaiting from the Supreme Court this term is abortion. Justice Breyer’s departure puts the question about reproductive rights into even sharper focus for the midterm elections. So I asked Axios’s Sophia Cai: How will Breyer’s departure affect campaigning for both parties?

SOPHIA CAI: So the battles confirm a new Supreme Court justice only brings more attention to the issue of abortion rights ahead of this year's midterms. And especially in swing states. If the court rules back abortion rights, Democrats expect it to be an energizing issue that brings more voters out. If the court upholds Roe v. Wade, then Republicans are concerned that they’ll lose a huge chunk of religious conservatives who voted Republicans in and to overturn Roe. Wisconsin is one of several swing states where restrictive abortion laws would automatically go into place of Roe were overturned. And, yesterday, I spoke to a Democratic Senate candidate, Sarah Godlewski, who told me that she's been to a pro-choice rally that’s been cropping up in cities all over, that don't usually organize around this issue. And she says that these first-time organizers are concerned that they may have to go to neighboring states like Minnesota to get an abortion. And so this is an example of a state where Democrats will really be depending on victories in the state legislatures and gubernatorial races as a backstop.

NIALA: Sophia Cai covers politics for Axios.

Yesterday we reported from Miami about the Haitian-American community. In particular, how activists have reacted to President Biden. Black and Latino voters across the country have been a key base for Democratic party. But in Miami, Latino voters helped Trump capture the entire state.

In the last presidential election, Donald Trump won the majority of Latino voters’ support in Miami-Dade – about 54%.

That's why this year, Republicans in South Florida are trying to translate that success to the midterms - even though the former president isn't on the ballot.

A focal point of that strategy is the Republican National Committee's Hispanic Community Center in Doral. It's in a strip mall just two miles away from the former President's Doral golf club, in a city with a predominantly Venezeulan population.

The RNC tells us it’s meant to be more than a campaign office, with cultural events and space for the Venezeulan, Cuban, Colombian and other Hispanic communities that make up about 70% of the county’s entire population.

There are eight of these centers for Hispanic voters across the country, and the RNC is also courting Black and AAPI voters with similar centers. RNC Communications Director Danielle Alvarez told us this isn't the first time they've opened community centers, but

DANIELLE ALVAREZ: It is the earliest we've ever opened community centers. In the midterm elections, there is a smaller electorate, you know, less voters do turn out.

Then when we have a general election on a presidential. And so we have to work extra hard. We have to go and have one-on-one conversations with our voters we got to make sure that our voters turn out.

NIALA: Democrats didn’t use that one-on-one strategy as much in South Florida during the last election cycle, because of the pandemic. And for its part the Democratic National Committee says it is starting its midterm efforts earlier this year, too. With more outreach, including a $20 million nationwide investment, part of which will go into combating misinformation campaigns that were a part of GOP success in South Florida in 2020. Lucas Acosta is coalitions director and senior spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee.

LUCAS ACOSTA: The DNC is building a new program to counter this disinformation, providing resources to our local state party partners, to make sure we are not only penetrating those traditional media venues, like press as well as radio, but also these WhatsApp groups where a lot of, Latinos particularly are getting, their news and information.

NIALA: But: here’s something important to keep in mind: What happens with latino voters in Miami-Dade county doesn't track with the rest of the latino population across the US.

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: So Latinos did support a Biden in the presidential election and the byte administration has done many things to address some of the concerns of Latinos, including, uh, around economics, around jobs, but also around addressing COVID and some of the issues around schools as well.

NIALA: Mark Hugo Lopez is the director of race and ethnicity research at Pew Research Center.

MARK: But the story for Latinos in approval of Biden is also one where there has been some change over the course of the last year. So while it hasn't recently changed, it is down somewhat from some of the highs that we saw early on during the Biden administration.

NIALA: I asked Mark: what should we be watching in terms of the midterms with Latino voters across the whole country?

MARK: Latino voters are a group that's growing fast and it's one that's becoming more and more, uh, young and also one that's becoming more, US born. Those characteristics may shape how Latino voters vote in future elections. In 2018, by the way, uh, many Latina voters voted for their democratic congressional candidate across the country. Even though Trump had done better among Latino voters in 2016, then you had seen previously with Mitt Romney or John McCain will that be the same for 2022? I think it remains to be seen.

NIALA: It also remains to be seen how this is going to play out in Florid. With 28 House seats at stake, plus a Senate and governor's race, Florida will stay a central piece of the GOP strategy in 2022.

And as we get deeper into the year, we’ll be bringing you more stories to help you understand what’s at stake during these midterms, what’s happening in states across the country, and how the major parties are trying to make their mark. Send us a message if you want to talk about what's going on in your home state: text me at 202-918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe - and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

Go deeper