On Oct. 2, Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer addressed an audience at the Greensboro Coliseum as part of the Guilford College Bryan Series.
Breyer, a sitting United States Supreme Court Justice, has been on the bench for 25 years. First appointed by Former President Bill Clinton in 1994, Breyer has served during four different presidential administrations and under two different Chief Justices of the Court.
The talk was moderated by Jan Crawford, the Chief Legal Correspondent for CBS News. Crawford began the conversation by addressing Breyer’s experience, noting that Breyer spent 11 years as the junior justice on the Supreme Court, one of the longest periods without turnover on the bench in history.
Crawford and Breyer then spoke about the process “behind the scenes” of the Supreme Court. They discussed what happens during conference, how the majority opinion is assigned and about institutions and rules followed during these processes.
Breyer explained how changes on the bench, such as the transition between Chief Justice Rheinquist and Chief Justice Roberts, as well as the addition of new associate justices, does change the dynamic of the Court during conference and opinion writing.
“The behaviors are different,” Breyer explained; however, he stressed that justices are still bound to the law.
Here, he pulled a copy of the Constitution out of his jacket pocket and held it up.
He said that while the behaviors between justices are different, and while the job may be a daunting one with large impacts, one must give their best effort to each case and “just do it.”
Breyer also expressed concern that the Court is increasingly being seen as political. Though, in response to this fear, Breyer affirmed his belief in the rule of law, claiming that the rule of law is what gives the Court legitimacy and what allows us to live peacefully together under a Constitution.
To underscore the congenial nature of the Court, Breyer spoke of his relationships with his colleagues. Breyer often disagreed with the late Antonin Scalia on the best way to interpret our founding documents. However, while these differences exist, Breyer maintains that they are not inherently political conflicts.
Students from UNC-Greensboro (UNCG) attended the talk. Both the Political Science Department and the UNCG chapter of the Legal Professions Association brought groups to the event.
“We are very excited [to see Justice Breyer],” said Khalia Dingle, a student at UNCG, before the event. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Despite Breyer’s claim that the Court is not a political body, he did have some advice for those who want to make a difference in the political arena: get involved with local government. Breyer may sit on the High Court, but maintained that the biggest effect on people happens in state and local government. This also resonated with students attending the event.
“I love how he talked about the importance of getting involved with state and local politics for people who really want to make a difference, because that’s where the legislation that affects us the most happens,” said Mary Judge, a senior political science student.
Judge was also glad Breyer addressed, “how important it is for us to be aware of how domestic law still has an international effect that can’t be ignored.”
“Even with our politics so divisive, Justice Breyer, speaking fondly of past intellectual debates with his colleague “Nino” [Antonin Scalia], reminded us that it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable. He challenged his audience to think globally because we are all connected, but to stay involved locally because that is where differences are made,” said Susan Johnson, a Political Science professor at UNCG.
Johnson continued, “[Justice Breyer] remains optimistic about the future, noting that even though our nation has suffered terrible events, including a civil war, slavery and segregation, our Constitution endures, and one thing he knows for sure is that in the year 2100, there will be a presidential election.”
The conversation ended with Justice Breyer answering questions from the audience, political and judicial. When asked about the current state of the nation, Breyer paused for a beat and said sardonically, “Things have been better.”
He still ended on a positive note. Breyer called on the next generation to tackle long term problems like education, health care and the environment.
According to Justice Breyer, how to do this includes, “Read! Think! Talk!” and, a theme throughout his address, “Listen.”