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July 29, 2020

Breyer reflects on politics, rule of law at ABA virtual conference

Despite everything that’s going on in today’s world, Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer says he remains optimistic about the country and the power people have to contribute and make a difference.

The high court jurist shared his insights on an array of topics during a special appearance at the American Bar Association 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting. The conference was held online for first time in the association’s 142-year history due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of the meeting’s General Assembly, Breyer spoke to ABA President Judy Perry Martinez during a wide-ranging conversation that covered everything from politics to the rule of law.

“If you want to convince other people and you don’t want so much division, I can tell you the first place to look. … the mirror,” Breyer said. “I’m optimistic because we have a long tradition and we have many ups and downs in this country. We did have slavery. We did have a civil war. We did have a legal system of segregation. We had all kinds of things, but somehow we do overcome them.”

Breyer lauded the freedom of speech, even when criticism flies in the face of the court over its rulings. “You’re free to say everything you want. … And I better be prepared to listen to a few criticisms. Of course, people can criticize. That isn’t a problem.”

While the high court also is sometimes criticized for being political, Breyer disagrees with that assertion.  Politics may have influenced the appointment of a Supreme Court justice, he said, but “once he’s a judge, once she’s there, she’s a judge. The politics goes out the window.”

Turning to the rule of law, Breyer pointed out that unlike some countries where riots ensue after unpopular legal rulings, court decisions are honored in the U.S. “The rule of law itself is in fact accepted, if and only if even though people disagree with the decision, even though it’s important to them, even though they think it’s totally wrong, they’ll accept the judicial decision,” he said.

Breyer shared that one of the most satisfying aspects of being a member of the legal profession is the opportunity to help others. “You're working for a client and you do your best. And, at least that person you can help. At least you can try. That’s the great thing I think about the legal profession.”

Breyer encouraged people, especially lawyers, to participate in the democratic process and in public life. “The Constitution of the United States … doesn’t tell people what to do. It puts limits around what government can do,” he said. “It tries to create a society where you’re part of it. And I can tell you, I believe that Adams and Madison and Hamilton and the others would have thought if you don’t participate, this document won’t work.”