U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

SCOTUS Justice Breyer On Rule of Law, Globalization and an “Unusual Position”

Want to know what a judge thinks? Go find out who his or her teachers were, said Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer while speaking at a law conference in midtown Manhattan on Thursday.

Breyer explained that when he looks at case law, he searches for the root purpose of why a judge wrote something.

“There is someone in the world who wrote those words at one time,” he said. “Why? There is always a purpose.”

That kernel was but one of a handful of insightful and humorous quips that Breyer delivered at the Association of American Law Schools annual conference at the New York Hilton Midtown. In a conversation with George Washington University Law School professor Alan Morrison, Breyer discussed his time as a judge, numerous cases he oversaw and the lessons he has learned from what he characterized as an “unusual position.”

President Clinton appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994, after more than a decade on the First Circuit Court of Appeals, and before that a career as a Harvard Law School professor who wrote about administrative law.

The session on Thursday was titled “A Conversation with the Honorable Stephen Breyer, U.S. Supreme Court,” and covered topics from Breyer’s new book, “The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities.” Topics included globalization, the rule of law and how lawyers and Breyer’s fellow members of the judiciary should look at cases with a broader lens.

Big Law Business rounded up the best quotes from the discussion.

On Being a Supreme Court Justice:

“When Harry Blackmun told me — the successor in that seat — ‘You are going to find this an unusual assignment,’ he was right. It is an unusual assignment. What I can do or try to do is see things in our profession because of luck and a lot of other things, from an unusual position.”

“We have to have ways of answering (questions in cases) other than listening to people saying opposite things that were paid by their clients to say opposite things.”

“The most I can do is present to a public that is too ready to put things into boxes a general picture of what’s going on in the court that require you to look beyond our own shores in many different ways.”

On Reading Case Law: 

“I would want to know purpose first. There is someone in the world who wrote those words at one time. Why? There is always a purpose.

“If you want to know what a judge thinks, go find who his teachers were. That’s what he thinks.”

On the Rule of Law:

“(Bush v. Gore was) wrong, in my opinion. But people did not cast stones, they did not shoot each other, they were not rioting. Turn on the television and see what happens in other countries when that happens.”

“I was speaking with the Chief Justice of Ghana who wanted to know why the people in the United States follow what we, the judges, say. I say, ‘I don’t know. I do know that it’s a history and it’s a history of ups and downs.'”

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