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July 29, 2020

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at American Bar Association virtual conference

WASHINGTON, July 29, 2020 — Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer shared insights on an array of topics during a special appearance today at the American Bar Association 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting. The conference, which runs through Aug. 4, is being 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, the Supreme Court jurist spoke to ABA President Judy Perry Martinez during a conversation that covered everything from politics to the rule of law. Among Breyer’s reflections:

  • Politics and the Supreme Court – “[Politics] may have influenced the appointment of the judge, but once he’s a judge, once she’s there, she’s a judge. The politics goes out the window.”
  • Public criticism of court 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.”
  • The power of the rule of law “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.”
  • Participating in democracy “The Constitution of the United States … doesn’t tell people what to do. It puts limits around what government can do. 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.”
  • On freedom of speech and liberty “Law is not computer science. … Human beings are involved, and all those things that count as a kind of jurisprudence do make a difference in some cases. Why? In some cases, they just need to make a difference because the freedom of speech has no specific definition in the Constitution of the United States. The word liberty doesn’t explain itself.”
  • Optimism about the country – “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. 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.”

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