Facts About Justice Stephen Gerald Breyer
Born on August 15, 1938, in San Francisco, California
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!
Yes, I have.
The one I was at? I think it was Stanford.
We went to many [games] because my father went there. Every year we would go when I was in high school.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We didn’t have to do a project back then. Maybe now. We had a number of merit badges.
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 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.
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.
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.
We have a cabin up in New Hampshire.
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.
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.
Like in fifth grade. I think she won—that was the problem.
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.
Favorite food . . . my son Michael is trying to convince me to go out and buy $140 worth of popcorn in Chicago.
$140. I’m not paying $140. No.
I do have a lot [of favorite foods].
I can cook seafood risotto.
In Boston, or Cambridge, there is a fish shop, a half block away, you can get about everything: mussels, clams, oysters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, I hate to admit it. I hate to admit it, but I rather like their meetings. [Clapping in the background.]
First meeting probably was . . . .
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.
In Sausalito. 1967.
Sure. The one I’ve been to the most? Muir Woods.
It’s beautiful. With the trails up there. Troop 14.
My wife is English.
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.
My bucket list . . . I have so many buckets.
I might go back and see three coins in the fountain.
[Singing] “Three coins in the fountain.” Yes. You’re talking about the song. Who were the three? Trouble now, too many tourists.
This is an interesting question.
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.
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.
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?
[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.”