Who are you?
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
Stephen Breyer: S-T-E-P-H-E-N, B-R-E-Y-E-R. I’m a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you? Sometimes when I have a difficult decision and it’s very . . . very close question and rather basic question: “What is really leading me in this direction rather than in that direction?” What is it that’s making me see where I might go here? I think it’s San Francisco, Lowell High School 1955, 1953. It’s a . . . it was a very open city. It was a wonderful place. We lived in the city. My father was a lawyer for the San Francisco School Board. I still have his watch. It’s his watch. It says “Irving Breyer, San Francisco Unified School District, 1933 – 1973.” He was born in San Francisco. His father moved there, I guess, before the turn of the 20th century. My mother was from Saint Paul. She moved out. I had one brother who was younger. And San Francisco was, as I say, a wonderful place because it was . . . you could very easily get to the mountains. Or I was in the Boy Scouts. I loved the Boy Scouts. We’d go on hiking trips. We could . . . You could go across the Bay. The weather was good. I spent the summers . . . one summer working at the BB&E. One summer they had a camp . . . camp Mayfield, which was a city camp. And they had lots of people there. Lawyers there, policemen, fireman. Not very many black people. Very interesting. And the . . . but it was . . . in many, many respects, there were not great divisions in the community. And I don’t think we realized how lucky we were. It didn’t take a lot of money. It really didn’t. And today I guess you’d have to have a lot of money to live the way we did then without very much at all. The times were good. What made it . . . I mean, the Boy Scouts, Grant School, Lowell High School, they’re a part of my life. My mother said that I seemed as happy in my senior year of high school in my senior year of high school, which has its ups and downs, as I might ever be. We didn’t know too much about the real problems in the country, I’d say that. I mean there are problems of race that we hardly knew existed in San Francisco, but they were right in front us. And gradually we got to see what they were. I can remember my mother telling me one day she had a friend who was black, and they wanted to go to a restaurant for lunch. And they were gonna go to the Saint Francis Hotel, and they were discussing whether they could. And that was San Francisco, that wasn’t the South. Question: Did the city shape you sense of law and justice? I wouldn’t go as broad as justice. I would say tremendous influence on me from that time looking back was the fact that my father worked for the city government, and my mother was interested in city life. So it was natural for me to think that it’s important to be part of a city, of a group, of a community. And an important part of your life is involved in work that will keep you in touch with other people in the community. That’s certainly what their lives showed. And it also showed me there are a million ways that you could possibly have that connection with the community. But I can remember thinking when I was a teenager . . . and we had some friends who lived . . . You started out by saying it was a suburb, but it wasn’t a suburb. And I wondered how could people live in the suburbs? Because if they lived in a suburb, they wouldn’t really be in touch with what’s going on in the city. And I understood after a while; but that part of civic life, community life – whether it was Temple Emmanuel, or whether it was the city School Board, or whether it was a school department, or whether it was the United Nations Association . . . She worked in political campaigns sometimes, my mother. So that, I think, had a tremendous influence in my life. Question: Who was your greatest influence when you were young? Always there are teachers. In everybody’s life, you have a teacher. There was Ms. ________ in the seventh grade. There was Mr. Ingvander in high school who I think said that I didn’t really know nearly as much as I thought I did. That was a good lesson. Question: Did your background shape your understanding of the law? Well I haven’t really developed a theory of the law. I didn’t try to develop a theory until I thought it was necessary. And it isn’t really a theory to explain to people how our court works, and how I and others try to think about the applications of the Constitution of problems that come up in front of the court. And that led me to write about it, and that’s what you’re thinking about. And of course, I suppose, at the heart of the Constitution. But it isn’t only me. It’s Sandra O’Connor who had a very different background . . . she lived on a ranch. Interestingly enough – we’ve talked about this – Tony Kennedy is really from San Francisco, Sacramento, Northern California. But I think in my own case, it puts . . . I see the Constitution as having the democratic process at the heart of it, of having . . . The central element of the Constitution is creating institutions so people can decide things for themselves. And often I like to refer back and say, “Well that’s probably what the founders had in mind,” or “the framers had in mind when they thought of the Greek city states, or when they were writing the Constitution.” Or perhaps, since you raised the point, it’s also what I saw in San Francisco.
Recorded on: 7/5/07
San Francisco taught Justice Breyer how to be a good citizen.
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