Breyer says he won't get into a debate over court vacancy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said Thursday he won't get drawn into a political debate over filling the vacancy on the high court.

The 78-year-old justice declined to address comments from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who said Republicans might block a court nominee indefinitely if Democrat Hillary Clinton is elected president.

Breyer told an audience at George Washington University that he's going to stay "as far away from anything that's politically controversial as possible."

Cruz on Wednesday noted Breyer's previous observations that the vacancy created after Antonin Scalia's death was not affecting the court's ability to do its job, and that only a few cases tied 4-4 without a ninth justice.

Asked whether the court could function four more years without filling vacancies, Breyer said: "I didn't say that."

Breyer was responding to questions from National Public Radio correspondent Nina Totenberg at an event sponsored by Smithsonian Associates.

Senate Republicans have refused to act on President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, saying it should be up to the next president. Garland's nomination has been pending since March.

Some of the court's liberal members — notably Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor — have said publicly that the court would function better with nine justices. But Breyer has not done so.

Breyer noted that in the court's previous term "there were about four or five cases out of 75 that split 4-4, but we tried pretty hard not to."

"It's better if the country has a decision," he said.