As part of the Eizenstat lecture series at the Ahavath Achim Synagogue, United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer shared his thoughts about his job in the United States Supreme Court.
Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, who began the lecture series in the honor of his parents and uncle, introduced the justice. He shared a story about how while he worked in the Carter White House right after Carter was trounced in the 1980 Presidential election. He received a call from Senator Ted Kennedy. Kennedy asked Eizenstat for a favor, to ask President Carter if he would appoint Breyer to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Eizenstat was taken aback; he brought up his concerns about how unpopular this would be with the lame duck Congress and was sure that the Republican would oppose this, especially the incoming Judiciary Chair Senator Strom Thurmond. Eizenstat also went further to point out that the tough primary battle with Kennedy did not endear Kennedy to Carter and this favor would be unlikely.
Senator Kennedy told Eizenstat, “You take care of the President, I’ll take care of Thurmond”. Eizenstat did go to the President. Carter appointed Breyer and he was unanimously supported by the Senate.
There is a shroud of mystery surrounding the Supreme Court, so getting a chance to hear a justice is a treat. Eizenstat acknowledged that teaching civics is no longer required in schools, but it is important to understand our system and, more importantly, our history.
This lecture was part history and civic lesson. Eizenstat referred to Federalist Paper 78, where it makes the argument that there needs to be a body to make sure that the values of the US Constitution are consistent with the changing circumstances of the times.
The question that Stephen Breyer receives most often and, most recently from a Justice from Ghana is: “What do people do when you come out with an unpopular decision?” Breyer shared that there really is no easy answer. He then went through and singled out some conflicting examples in our history.
The first occurred in Georgia. The Cherokee Indians had lands, treaties and a nation. Then gold was found on their lands; the Cherokee were then pushed out. The Supreme Court ruled that they could not be moved but President Andrew Jackson said “Let them enforce this,” and he pushed the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma and what became known as the “Trail of Tears.”
Breyer pointed to integration battle that finally worked out.
He spoke of a more recent example with Bush vs. Gore. He was in the minority, but after the decision was made, it was accepted. No riots, not violence, and we moved on as a nation.
The most recent rulings were about Guantanamo detainees, where the Supreme Court said that the prisoners do have rights even though they are not technically on American soil, but remain under American custody. Justice O’Connor said, “the Constitution gives the President the power to protect us, but it is not a blank check.”
The constant battle of the US Supreme Court is to continue to embody the values that don’t change much in a world where the circumstances change rapidly. Law is not a mechanical business and that is the challenge of the court.
Justice Breyer’s most important point of the evening was: “Know your history a little bit and understand what your Constitution will do.”
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