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February 24, 2023 Waymaker

The Honorable Stephen Breyer: U.S. Supreme Court Justice (Retired)

By Hon. Margaret Kuroda Masunaga (Ret.)

Facts About Justice Stephen Gerald Breyer

Born on August 15, 1938, in San Francisco, California

Graduated in 1955 from Lowell High School in San Francisco

Served in the U.S. Army (Reserve) from 1957–1965

Earned bachelor’s degree in 1959 from Stanford University

Earned bachelor’s degree in 1961 from Magdalen College, University of Oxford

Received law degree in 1964 from Harvard University

Associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1994–2022

Nominated by President Bill Clinton to replace retiring Justice Harry BlackmunSucceeded by Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was nominated by President Joe Biden

Parents: Anne and Irving Breyer

Married Joanna Hare on September 4, 1967 (55 years ago)

Children: Chloe, Nell, and Michael

Grandchildren: Clara, Ansel, Eli, Samuel, Angela, and Stevie

Brother: Federal Judge Charles Breyer

Favorite baseball team: San Francisco Seals/now Boston Red Sox

Boy Scouts of America, Eagle Scout 1951

Favorite national park: Muir Woods

Favorite artwork: Rebecca at the Well by Nicolas Poussin (1648)

First ABA meeting attended: 1967

Can sing: “Love Letters in the Sand” by Pat Boone

Can cook: Seafood risotto

Favorite drink: Campari and soda

In August 2022 at the American Bar Association (ABA) Annual Meeting, Judge Margaret Kuroda Masunaga and Melissa Hodek had the pleasure of sitting down with Justice Stephen Breyer and learning more about his life, family, personal history, and current interests. While we were tempted by our colleagues to ask questions about the Supreme Court decision leak, the future of what has recently become a politicized Supreme Court, and his thoughts on recent Supreme Court decisions, we decided to take a different approach and learn more about the justice as a person—a father, husband, and grandfather. Specifically, 1967 was an important year for the recently retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. That year, he married his wife of now 55 years, he began teaching law at Harvard Law School, and he joined the ABA. When asked about his favorite part of being an ABA member, Justice Breyer said the meetings.

The delightful Justice Breyer sat down with us over a cup of coffee (not coffee from Masunaga Farms Kona coffee, but I gave him some to try later), and we had a nice chat. We first took some photos, and I said, “Let’s do a fun photo, and make the shaka sign.” Justice Breyer was not familiar with the Hawaiian hand signal when you smile and greet people, so I gladly showed him how to do the shaka sign by extending his thumb and pinky finger and curling the other fingers under. Jason Fujioka, ABA News Director (from Honolulu), asked me, “Are you from Hawaii?” I said yes, from the Big Island. The aloha spirit was present that day in Chicago. I had a copy of Justice Breyer’s most recent book, The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics (100 pages, 2021). He graciously signed it, “To my colleague Margaret—With best wishes, S. Breyer.” It was truly an honor and privilege for us to “talk story” with Justice Breyer, see the sparkle in his eyes, smile, relax, laugh, and especially hear him sing!

I graduated from Cal Berkeley. I know you went to Stanford. Have you ever been to a Big Game (football game in November between Stanford and the University of California)?

Yes, I have.

Who won?

The one I was at? I think it was Stanford.

Stanford won when I went. But that’s okay.

We went to many [games] because my father went there. Every year we would go when I was in high school.

Are you a San Francisco Giant’s fan?

Yes, but I’m older than you think. So, I am really a San Francisco Seal’s fan, the AAA league. I used to go with my grandfather every week, just about, when they were playing. Many, many weeks. Seal’s stadium, 16th and Bryant Streets. The manager was Lefty O’Doul. We would go across to Emeryville, and we would watch the Oakland Oaks. Their manager was Casey Stengel, at Emeryville Park, and we would take the train there over the bridge.

What about the San Francisco 49ers?

Yes, Y. A. Tittle was the quarterback. We would go to Kezar stadium. It would be a little cold, a little fogged up. I really never went to Candlestick Park. Very rarely.

The S.F. Giants moved out after I went to college. So, I would watch Frenchy Uhalt, my favorite player on the Seals. He was in left field. Roy Nicely, shortstop, not a great hitter, but a very good fielder. Those are the days I remember. The AAA league, it was the San Diego Padres, San Francisco Seals, Hollywood Stars, Oakland Oaks, and Sacramento Solons. But now I am definitely a Red Sox’s fan. In fact, I was briefly the Chief Justice of the Red Sox Nation.

What was one memory you have of when you went to Lowell High School in San Francisco?

Oh, well, every lunch time, we would go out into the yard and gossip, talk, play, and have fun.

We were on the debate team with Mr. Lorbeer, the coach. Getting up at 5:00 a.m. in the morning and setting off in his car, we would go to Stockton, Fresno, into the Valley, where they took debate more seriously. One of the other teams, St. Ignatius, three blocks from where I lived, was Jerry Brown (former CA governor) and his partner Pete Finnegan. I debated with Marc Leland.

Do you have any suggestions on the best enrollment policy for Lowell High School?

There was no enrollment policy when I was there. At that time, anyone who wanted to go could go. It was fun, interesting, and I learned a lot.

When you were growing up, do you remember any concerts you went to?

Sure. I went to Grant Grammar School. Every year, the San Francisco Opera would ask for volunteers, for which they would pay you a dollar. You wouldn’t sing. I was a brown soldier in Boris Godunov; I was a street sweeper in Carmen. This was in elementary school. Probably the eighth grade, I was 12 or 13.

When you were in high school and college, what kind of music did you listen to? Opera?

We did listen to opera. There was a disc jockey (DJ) who played in all of the Bay Area. When I was at Stanford, we got a whole group of people to vote for Caruso, when the DJ would have a day and play records of whoever got the most votes. We got everyone to vote for Caruso, and the DJ spent the entire day playing Caruso.

Were you a Boy Scout?


Eagle Scout?


What was your project? When you are an Eagle Scout, you have to do a project.

We didn’t have to do a project back then. Maybe now. We had a number of merit badges.

Do you remember what year that was?

Yes. 1950–1951. Joe Ehrman was the Boy Scout master. We would go to different camps. Lake Tahoe. It was a child’s paradise.

When you were in high school or college, what was your favorite song?

When I went off to the Army, I remember what was playing, driving down to Fort Ord, Monterey. Basic training. I was a little nervous about it. All they were playing on the radio was, [Justice Breyer serenading us] “On a day like today, we passed the time away, writing love letters in the sand.” Don’t you remember that song?


You don’t remember that song? It’s great. 1957.

That was before me [my time]. Okay. You have grandchildren: Clara, Ansel, Eli, Samuel, Angela, and Stevie. Do you know what kind of music they like?

I tried to convince them. But they should like music that was popular in 1952. We listened to Your Hit Parade with Dorothy Collins and Snooky Lanson.

What is your favorite vacation spot, now and then?

In the summer, I had a friend, Marc, and his family always rented a house on the Peninsula, and I’d go down with them and swim in the swimming pool. I liked that. His mother made very good corned beef sandwiches.

What about now?

We have a cabin up in New Hampshire.

What is one thing you remember about your grandparents or parents when you were growing up?

My grandparents, my grandfather used to take me during the summer, every weekend, to the Seals baseball games, and in the winter, we would go to the movies. We could go to the Orpheum Theater to see vaudeville, or the magician, and in the second half, there would be a movie such as Singin’ in the Rain. A friend of my brother took me to a birthday party, and we saw South Pacific the musical. I do remember seeing Lawrence Olivier, and Henry the Fifth at the Stage Door movie theater. You could also see plays.

Very cool. Do you want to describe your favorite childhood memory?

I got in a terrible argument with a girl. I don’t remember her name. The rest of the class all voted, [and said] you should go after school and have a boxing match.

In elementary school?

Like in fifth grade. I think she won—that was the problem.

What is your favorite piece of artwork? It could be one that you own or that you’ve seen.

Oh, it’s not that I own. I like Poussin. If I had to choose one, it would be Rebecca at the Well. I was looking at that the other day.

What is your favorite food?

Favorite food . . . my son Michael is trying to convince me to go out and buy $140 worth of popcorn in Chicago.

Garrett popcorn. Oh, you have to.

$140. I’m not paying $140. No.

Caramel and cheese combination. They sell it at the airport, too.

I do have a lot [of favorite foods].

What about a favorite food that you can cook?

I can cook seafood risotto.

What kind of seafood?

In Boston, or Cambridge, there is a fish shop, a half block away, you can get about everything: mussels, clams, oysters.

Your favorite drink?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg convinced me that my favorite drink for a cocktail was Campari and soda. She liked it very much, and I began to see her point.

Describe a day in the life of Justice Breyer. What does it look like?

When I worked in the Court, I would be down there by 8:30 or quarter to 9. I would have my word processor behind my desk. First thing I’d do, I would get some coffee. I would talk to my law clerks. We talked about everything. We talked about courts; we talked about music. We talked about their favorite music. We talked about movies they’ve seen. I tried to convince them the best movies were made before 1954. They would try to convince me of the contrary. There’s nothing like The Third Man. They would say yes, there is. I enjoyed being around them. Then we’d have to do some work. I’d go back to the word processor and do some writing. They would give me a draft or memo. I would write my draft. Give it back to my law clerk. She would think hers was better. Nevertheless.

You’re the boss.

So, we went through many drafts. We would send them around and asked people to join. Sometimes they didn’t all join. We would re-write; we might take their comments into account.

We would have our court conferences every week. Discuss the cases. Oral arguments. Read briefs. Your job is reading and writing.

On the subject of your work, do you think the U.S. Supreme Court should be required to follow the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct like all other judges in the United States of America?

Well, they do. The critics are wrong. When I have a difficult question, whether I disqualify myself, of course, I look it up. There are like seven volumes that they put out. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t look it up. There is one slight difference. This is an important one. You’re in court, you disqualify yourself, someone else can take the job. In the Court of Appeals, there are other judges who can take my place. That’s not true in the Supreme Court. When I am sitting as an appellate court judge, I can err on the side of disqualification. But when I am sitting as a Supreme Court judge, I cannot because it can change the result. Very easily. I have to be very careful not to manipulate. That means I have to be sure I’m right if I’m going to take myself out. Or I’m sure I’m right if I’m not. Therefore, I read those canons of ethics with care. I try to adjust to the situation. Everyone I know on the Court, and have known for over 28 years, does the same thing.

That’s good to know. Thank you. What do you like the most about the American Bar Association?

Well, I hate to admit it. I hate to admit it, but I rather like their meetings. [Clapping in the background.]

Yay! I do too. I’ve enjoyed this since I was a young lawyer. It took me a while to come to my first ABA meeting, but once I came to one in 1991, I was hooked. When was the first meeting you ever went to?

First meeting probably was . . . .

Were you a young lawyer?

No, I joined the ABA when I started teaching in 1967. I’m going to say something about that. Libby Hall, teaching criminal law at Harvard, he said go to the meetings. It was an administrative law meeting or antitrust.

Tommy Susman organized one of the best meetings I’ve ever been to.

I didn’t know Tommy was in the room! We need to get a picture with you.

In Sausalito. 1967.

Wasn’t that the year you got married?

September 1967.

Fifty-five years ago, when you got married. Did you get your wife a gift this year?

Don’t worry.

Do you have a favorite national park? Do you ever go to any national parks? That you go to a lot?

Sure. The one I’ve been to the most? Muir Woods.

I love Muir Woods. My niece lives near there in Mill Valley. And you went hiking? I love that answer.

It’s beautiful. With the trails up there. Troop 14.

Which country do you like visiting?

My wife is English.

So you go to England a lot?

Yes. Do you think I would say anything else other than England? France is my second choice. Or maybe first, but I’m not saying that.

What is on your bucket list?

My bucket list . . . I have so many buckets.

So, you don’t have any more? Nothing else on your bucket list?

I might go back and see three coins in the fountain.

Is that in Rome?

[Singing] “Three coins in the fountain.” Yes. You’re talking about the song. Who were the three? Trouble now, too many tourists.

You have to be careful.

This is an interesting question.

Have you been to Japan?

I love Japan. I love the people. People are very polite. The most amazing thing about Japan—wherever you went, in the least beautiful building, no matter where you go, there is one thing beautiful. If you go to a hotel, and you are not enchanted by the outside, right on the third floor, where you went to your room. There are two women sitting at a table, and the most beautiful flower arrangement.

Ikebana. This question comes from Karen Korematsu. How did you feel when you first met her father Fred Korematsu in D.C. at Ann Besig’s home? Do you remember meeting Fred Korematsu?

Of course. Amazing. The reason I was there. That was not in D.C. That was in Cambridge. Ernie Besig’s daughter was Ann Besig.

Ernie Besig was the head of ACLU in San Francisco. My dad and he played poker. Ernie Besig was going to represent Korematsu. The ACLU said in April of 1942, no you can’t. We don’t want you representing him. So, it shows you what it was like. At that moment, a general ran the Presidio. He was afraid the Japanese were going to invade San Francisco. There was a great move to send the Japanese, including citizens of the United States from the West Coast, to camps in the middle western intermountain region. Korematsu was a citizen. Korematsu said, “They can’t do that to me.” He got Ernie Besig to represent him. When the ACLU said no, he said, “I’m representing him anyway.”

Korematsu was certain he would win. He should have. Certainly he should have. By the time the case got to the Supreme Court, Japanese were living on the West Coast. My mother showed me that. We were driving down the peninsula by the Tanforan Race Track. I remember the moment. I remember her saying to me, I was six or eight years old, she pointed to Tanforan Race Track right by highway 101. She said to me, “That’s where they kept the Japanese in World War II,” and the tone of approval was not in her voice. I guarantee that.

They all had to report to Tanforan, and then they were shipped out east. Korematsu said, “they are not doing that to me.” The ACLU came around. The ACLU and the Japanese American Defense League defended the Japanese in the Supreme Court. They all expected to win. They lost. Very interesting. I met Korematsu. Feisty guy. I couldn’t have liked him more.

My parents were interned. My mom graduated high school behind barbed wires in Jerome, Arkansas. My dad was in Poston, Arizona, and the way he answered those questions, he was the oldest in his family, they sent him to Tule Lake. Justice Anthony Kennedy was my constitutional law professor at McGeorge. He justified the decision based on wartime necessity.

Well, I know what happened because I looked it up. Pretty much. I’m not positive. How did they decide this? Unbelievable. Remember the year they decided it—1944. No one was going to bomb San Francisco in 1944. No one. Earl Warren was one of the big supporters. He said it was the worst thing he ever did. He was the attorney general. He was supporting the farmers and wanted to get rid of the competition. Do you know why, in my opinion, they decided the way they did?

In your book, better to have the president decide versus the court.

[Justice Hugo] Black. In the case that came before. He’s sitting at the table in his office. According to Justice Felix Frankfurter. He said to them, “Someone has to run this war. [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt or us, and we cannot.”

That was in your book [The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics].

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By Hon. Margaret Kuroda Masunaga (Ret.)

Hon. Margaret Kuroda Masunaga (Ret.) serves on the ABA Judicial Division, Executive Committee of the National Conference of State Trial Judges.