Stephen Gerald Breyer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Appointed in 1994, Breyer is often regarded as more liberal than most other members of the court. He is highly regarded across the political spectrum for his pragmatic, rather than ideological, approach to the Constitution. In Bush v. Gore, which settled the controversial 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, he issued a widely respected dissent which criticized those who would decide the case on the basis of equal protection. Breyer, a Rhodes Scholar, was educated at Stanford, Oxford and Harvard. He is the author of Breaking the Vicious Circle: Toward Effective Risk Regulation. Ideas recorded at the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival on: 7/5/07
Richard Breyer: Justice O’Connor and I were in India on 9/11. We had . . . there. We were meeting with their judicial . . . with judges of their Supreme Court. We arrived on that very day. On that very day. And of course the people there were horrified, and there was a tremendous outpouring of support, and people couldn’t have been nicer. And, but it was a time of thought for me. And really, it seemed to me . . . and I mention it because what was in our minds after a week there – we spent a week there – that the world is really divided into what I think of as the forces of reason and the forces of non-reason. And the forces of reason . . . well law is part of that. Law is part of it. Judges are part of it. Lawyers are part of it, and so is everybody else on . . . you know . . . other professions. The forces of non-reason, that’s the risk. That’s the danger. So I rather see that as something that’s unifying people across the world. Because people across the world do believe in democratic systems. They do believe in protecting basic human rights. They do believe in trying to create economies that will make their people prosperous. And they believe to a considerable degree in international settlement disputes. Things like that, too. But there are forces that they have to fight against which are obvious. So that’s in my mind. Maybe that’s how I was brought up, too. That was after World War II . . . cooperation. But as you look out today, and also I’d say my experience tells me that in a way, it’s like this . . . somebody weaving a loom. I mean I’m not a political figure. I’m not in politics. And I don’t . . . and people who do . . . are in politics and in very high levels in government may see these international institutions and global politics going on at a very high level. But I say to the lawyers and judges who are technical people, who are professionals, and at our level, whatever happens at the other, there’s a kind of knitting going on. It’s like workers at a loom. It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in Africa. It’s happening in Asia. People are learning from each other, particularly in law. How does it happen? It happens in conferences. People talk to each other. Judges talk to each other. Lawyers talk to each other. It happens as different groups try to create laws. For example in Europe, they’re trying to create commercial laws, and bankruptcy laws, and tax laws, and laws that will govern several what were independent . . . . they are independent nations, but they’re trying to get together. And this is happening at the World Trade Organization. It’s happening across the world. It’s popularly called “globalization”. But what it involves are people in business, people in law, learning what each other are doing. And they adjust their laws accordingly. It doesn’t always have to be formal. We used to have a group called the Uniform Law Commissioners. And they’d go from state to state, and they’d say, “California does this.” And they’d go to Iowa, and they’d say, “Iowa, you know California does this. Maybe you should try it.” And that kind of thing goes on every minute as we speak. And then there are different organizations developing like the World Trade Organization. There are dozens of them. And there are free trade areas. There are health organizations. There are communications organizations. There’s the Internet. There are all these things we know about. They are all forces working to bring us together. So what I see as happening – and it’s not a political matter – what I see as happening is people who are lawyers and judges in America today have to be aware. And they have to have a system of being aware about what’s going on elsewhere. Because the cases in front of them will more and more depend on what’s happening elsewhere. Question: How do you make sense of our recent past? I heard Shimon Peres say something interesting, I thought, because people are so pessimistic about the Middle East. And he said something more optimistic. He said, “It’s like going forward with throwbacks.” It’s . . . there are obstacles. And you hope you’ll surmount them and you might. There were . . . right now you’re involved in the Internet. Well my goodness. That could be a terrible thing. It could be a force that isolates people. They don’t have human contact anymore. Everything is . . . Or, it could be a force that brings them together. And in fact, when you see people in . . . probably in the Middle East, he said, “Once they start to see what’s possible elsewhere in the world, and what they can achieve through cooperation in a modern world . . .” Modern has a lot of bad about it, but it has a lot of good. And whether it’s good or bad, we’re in it. And once they see what is possible to accomplish through education, through savings, through trying to improve their economic life, through getting together . . . once they see that, they’ll begin more to understand it, and that will be a tremendous civilizing force. And by “civilizing force”, I mean the force that really keeps out these incredible fanatics. And so what we’ve seen in the last 10 years is there is no magic solution to me. There are no magic solutions to keeping them out.
Recorded on: 7/5/07