SUMMARY OF THE EVENT
By Amy Howe
May 28, 2021
at 5:14 p.m.
Judge Stephen Breyer speaks with students on Zoom at an event hosted by the National Constitution Center.
Judge Stephen Breyer touted the merits of civic education and transcended ideological divides, saying on Friday that when enough people want their elected officials to work together, they will. Breyer’s words, which the 82-year-old lawyer made in a high-profile conversation with Jeffrey Rosen of the National Constitution Center, came the same afternoon that Senate Republicans used a procedural obstruction to block legislation this would have created a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill.
Breyer spoke via Zoom from his cabinet at the Supreme Court, against a backdrop of antique books and art borrowed from the National Gallery of Art, to a group of middle and high school students. Breyer told the students they needed to know how the US government works “so that we can keep it going.” Breyer stressed that this was “not the first time that people have been discouraged by the democratic process” and that the United States has already been the victim of racism. “Of course it’s a bad system,” Breyer admitted, “except for the rest.” The American political system, Breyer pointed out, is still an experiment. Breyer thinks aloud: “Will this work?” “Your job,” he told the students, “is to make sure that is the case. “
Rosen urged Breyer, saying a lot of people think the American system is broken. What can we do, Rosen asked, to make this work? Breyer replied that he was “fundamentally optimistic”, although he added that he was not sure how justified that optimism was. The late Senator Edward Kennedy, for whom Breyer worked early in his career, used to say that the country is wavering, Breyer explained, and will eventually recover. He noted that he frequently saw Kennedy reaching out to Republicans when he needed their support and talking to them. Once people start talking, Breyer suggested, they’ll eventually find common ground.
As judges set to review Mississippi abortion law in fall intended to challenge Roe vs. Wade, Rosen also asked Breyer about the role of the previous one. Breyer replied that the law is in part about stability, allowing people to plan their lives. “If you change it all the time,” observed Breyer, “people won’t know what to do. On the other hand, Breyer argued, the more you change the law, the more people will ask the courts to change it.
Breyer, the court’s longest-serving judge, has faced increasing pressure from some liberals to retire and allow President Joe Biden to appoint a younger successor while Democrats have tight control over the Senate. Breyer did not discuss his future plans on Friday.
He spoke warmly of his colleagues in court, telling his audience that “of course” you can be friends with judges who have very different approaches to the law. Although he and his colleagues don’t always agree on cases, Breyer made it clear: “I never heard a voice rise in anger.” Conservative Judge Clarence Thomas, Breyer noted, is a “very, very decent person.”
Breyer’s discussion of the late judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September 2020, was poignant. “I miss her,” Breyer said. And he revealed that in talking about a case recently with one of his clerics, he said to the clerk, “Let’s go see what Ruth thinks.
Breyer revealed that during the pandemic he had “driven Joanna” – his wife, a psychologist – “crazy!” He had also “worked on my word processor”, pondered (“you feel better”, he said) “fake bike” on “one of these machines” – sparking several tweets about whether justice has a bunch – and watch reruns of the TV classic M * A * S * H.
This article was originally published by Howe on the Court.