With thoughtfulness and humor, US Supreme Court Justice Breyer delivered an insightful lecture that included his thoughts on his favorite case, relationships with other justices, and democracy.
An overflow crowd listens to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's speech in the Red Lacquer Room of the Palmer House Hilton Hotel. MPSA Conference. April 2012. Chicago, IL
Justice Breyer said that in the more than 200 years the United States has existed, there have been “all kinds of ups and downs.” He chronicled the efforts to get equal rights for African Americans and said that his favorite case was Cooper v. Aaron, “the story after Brown v. Board of Education.”
In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “The race-based segregation of children into ‘separate but equal’ public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and is unconstitutional.”
There were instances in which states refused to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision to implement desegregation of public schools. One prominent example occurred in Arkansas and resulted in the 1958 Supreme Court decision in Cooper v. Aaron. This case ended any question that state government officials are “bound to comply with Supreme Court rulings and court orders based upon the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution.”
Breyer seemed to especially like the Cooper v. Aaron decision because it reflected finality on two fronts: race-based segregation of children in public schools is unconstitutional and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution was found to be binding on states and state officials.
Breyer indicated, however, that the Supreme Court is not infallible. “Because we’re human beings, some decisions are wrong,” Breyer said. He then continued, and with a grin on his face said, “Often the majority is wrong.”
Breyer noted that he is often asked about the Bush v. Gore decision. He said that his advice to the Court is, “try to stay away from deciding cases based on ideology.”
Justice Breyer pointed out the differences between America and some other nations. He said, “Look at countries who resolve their differences with guns and rocks and stones. We decide questions at the ballot box.” He spoke passionately about what demarcates democracy from other forms of government – human rights, separation of powers, rule of law.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Featured speaker at MPSA Conference. April 2012. Chicago, IL
Separation of powers does not rule out cooperation among the branches, according to Breyer. "The Constitution is a document that foresees cooperation as much as checks and balances," he said. He also considered the Supreme Court's relationship to lower courts, stating that it is "not hierarchy, but specialization."
Justice Breyer commented that “history doesn’t always provide answers to complicated questions,” and he went on to say, with regard to the Constitution, “common values that underlie words doesn’t change that much, but circumstances change.’
He shared a story about mentioning to Justice Scalia that the Founding Fathers didn’t have the Internet. Smiling, Justice Breyer said that Scalia responded with a dry, but friendly, “thanks for reminding me.”
When talking about other members of the Court, Justice Breyer said, we “may disagree, but we are professionals.”
At the conclusion of his speech, Justice Breyer took questions from the audience. One person asked for his thoughts about a person needing judicial experience in order to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Breyer thought that wasn’t a mandatory requirement. He thought it important that a wide range of life experiences be represented on the Court.
Breyer was asked if he maintained a collegial relationship with former justices. He said that he does, and in fact mentioned visiting with former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, whom, he said, was “leading the effort to get the judicial process out of the political process.” Breyer went on to say, again with a smile on his face, that retired justices tell him that they are “enjoying life tremendously.”
The lecture ended with the audience giving Justice Breyer a standing ovation and a long round of applause in appreciation of his lecture.