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Justice Stephen Breyer with President Joe Biden

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, with President Joe Biden, holds a copy of the Constitution as he announces his retirement in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 27, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Exiting Breyer Quotes Lincoln: 'We Are Now Engaged in a Great Civil War'

The Supreme Court justice appeared to be "pointedly talking about threats facing the country," said one observer.

Julia Conley

Officially announcing his retirement Thursday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer quoted former President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as the outgoing jurist suggested the country was embroiled in something like the "great civil war" of the nation's past.

"This is a complicated country," said the justice, adding that the U.S. was conceived as "an experiment" as he held up a copy of the U.S. Constitution.

"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," Breyer added, quoting the words of Lincoln.

The justice announced his retirement just over a year after former President Donald Trump incited a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol which was aimed at overturning the results of the 2020 election—an incident that Trump's allies continue to downplay as the former president leads in 2024 presidential candidate polls.

The U.S. also faces the coronavirus pandemic and a right-wing misinformation campaign which has been blamed for driving up death rates; continued racial injustice and the Republican Party's fight to keep discussions of racism out of public schools; attacks on voting rights and reproductive freedom across the nation; and a widening gap between lower- and middle-income Americans and the richest corporations and people in the country. Right-wing lawmakers have stood in the way of proposals to solve several of these crises despite their broad popularity with the public.

Leah Litman, a professor at University of Michigan Law School and former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, tweeted that Breyer appeared to be "pointedly talking about threats facing the country."

"Not by accident," said NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss, "did Justice Breyer... remind us that the American system is always an experiment whose survival must never be taken for granted."


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