Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on Thursday suggested the recent vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia's death will have a minimal impact on the court's decision-making ability.
Speaking at an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Breyer said he and his seven colleagues would miss Scalia, who became a fiery conservative figure on the bench after being appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, but are prepared to "do our work." Breyer was nominated by President Bill Clinton.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced, almost immediately after Scalia's passing, that he would not allow the Senate to take up a Supreme Court nominee put forth from President Obama. He and Republican lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who unanimously pledged to block any hearings from taking place on the president's forthcoming judicial nominee, have said the decision should be left to the next commander-in-chief.
"For the most part, it will not change," Breyer said of the court on Thursday. "The cases come along. Contrary to what a lot of people think, half of our cases are unanimous. The number of 5-4 cases in a typical year is around 20 percent."
Breyer's comments come after several Democrats and judicial experts suggested the court might be evenly divided in a number of upcoming high-profile cases on abortion rights, religious freedom and affirmative action, among other hot-button issues. When a 4-4 split occurs in the court, the lower court decision is upheld without creating precedent.
Despite falling on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Breyer spoke highly of Scalia during his interview Thursday with NBC News' Pete Williams.
"He was fun. He was absolute fun," he said. "Underlying a very, very sharp wit, a very strong intellect and an ability to see the humorousness in different situations, underlying that was an absolute seriousness of purpose."
He added that Scalia "was absolutely serious about the Constitution [and] about the need for the courts.
"I would say he was a factor making life at the court personally more pleasant for the individuals who are there and also making it absolutely important to focus your attention on the basic underlying points that were being disputed in a case and that would lead to the interpretation of the Constitution," Breyer said.