"Law requires both a heart and a head," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a member of the Harvard Law School class of 1964 said during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1994. "If you don't have a heart, it becomes a sterile set of rules removed from human problems, and it won't help. If you don't have a head, there's the risk that in trying to decide a particular person's problem in a case that may look fine for that person, you cause trouble for a lot of other people, making their lives yet worse. So it is a question of balance."
Throughout Breyer’s career as a professor at the Law School, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and finally a Supreme Court Justice, friends and colleagues agree that he has demonstrated his commitment to this balance, striving for justice through a pragmatic approach to the law.
An Early Aptitude for Law
Breyer was born in San Francisco, California, in 1938. He attended Lowell High School, where he excelled on the debate team. In a 1994 interview, his high school debate coach said, “You can spot the potential lawyers early.... He would do copious research on a debate topic while other kids were out, you know, doing things like stealing hubcaps." Breyer’s classmates also predicted his future achievements, voting him “most likely to succeed” when he graduated in 1955.
Breyer was accepted to both Stanford and Harvard undergrad, and though he preferred the latter, his parents urged him to go to Stanford as his mother did not want him to become too bookish, according to an article by U.S. News and World Report. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford in 1959.
He then entered Harvard Law School upon completing two years at Oxford as a Marshall scholar. His criminal law section in the fall of 1961 was taught by Law School professor Charles Fried, who said Breyer was a “very smart, playful, and curious” student. Breyer was the articles editor of the Harvard Law Review, and graduated in 1964 magna cum laude.
Back at HLS
Breyer returned to the Law School in 1967 to work as an assistant professor and then as a full professor, teaching administrative law, until 1980. Former professor Alan M. Dershowitz noted that he and Breyer have a similar teaching style. “We’re both very questioning, we’re both very skeptical,” Dershowitz said.
When Professor Charles J. Ogletree was a student, he met Breyer not through class but instead through Breyer’s public interest work. At the time, Breyer was “the force,” Ogletree said, working to ensure that Law School students had public interest opportunities as alternatives to jobs at corporate law firms.
Breyer has returned to the Law School for many events and lectures over the past couple of decades. In one event this past fall, he held a question and answer session with current Law School Dean Martha L. Minow during which he explained the inner workings of the Supreme Court. Minow noted in an email that Breyer’s “careful and clear explanations of the work of the United States Supreme Court and his candid responses to questions showed what a great teacher he is.”