Thursday, September 22, 2011

The wisdom of Justice Breyer

There are some symphonic masterpieces you can recognize by the opening triad.  Likewise, when I happened to turn on my radio last night, I heard three words and said, "Oh, that's Steve Breyer."  He was on Tom Ashbrook's On Point show on our local public radio station.

I first met Steve in 1974, when he was appointed to a Governor's study commission of which I was the staff director.  He was then at Harvard Law School.  The wisdom and brain power were evident even then.

Justice Stephen Breyer in the On Point studio. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
But listen to this interview, in which Breyer talks about his new book, Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View.  Whether you agree with his legal decisions or not, you have to admit that this is the kind of person we want on our Supreme Court.  Here's the link.  Excerpts:

Ashbrook: Why did you write this [book]? What are you worried about?

Breyer: There’s a great deal of cynicism about our government and the younger the people, the more cynical they are. A little cynicism may be justified. But if there’s too much, the government won’t work. Because the Constitution itself depends on people participating, in good faith, in governmental processes: in elections, in their local communities, on their school boards, on library commissions. They have to have a public part. I think the best thing that people in public life, and a lots of us think this, can do, is explain to people the best we can, how our institutions work.

Ashbrook: There have been [court] decisions that many Americans have found very challenging. [In the year] 2000, of course, we saw the decision of the Bush-Gore elections in the Supreme Court. Highly controversial. Much more recently and under this president, we saw Citizens United, where the court said that corporations, unions, had the same rights as citizens to free speech.

Now, we’re headed into an election season for the president of the United States. This is a big deal. And this is going to be a time when that ruling is in place and the money is already rolling. And a lot of people are really upset about it. The people you are counting on to support the legitimacy, the clout, the power of the Supreme Court. What do you say to them when they look at Citizens United, which seems to so empower people who may be seen as citizens, but they are not human beings?

Breyer: I say three things: First, remember, we, in a sense, on the court patrol the boundaries. The Constitutions sets very broad boundaries. Life on the frontier, on those boundaries, is not always pleasant…Is abortion inside or outside the constitution? What about school prayer? What about Bush versus Gore? What about the cases you’ve mentioned? They are always pretty difficult cases and there something to be said on both sides.

I’d like people to remember that even when they disagree– and I disagreed in the cases you mentioned, I was in the dissent. I disagreed very strongly. But even in those cases where the Supreme Court has done something unpopular and where it might be wrong after all, we’re human. We are human beings. I mean people don’t always understand that, it’s certainly true. And if you’re a human being, you can make mistakes.

And therefore the job that I have right now is even tougher than you’ve suggested. Because I’m trying to say to the average man and woman in America, please read a little of this or learn a little of it, and you’ll see perhaps why this institution can help you. Even though you will disagree with it. And you may be right. And you may be wrong.

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