Justice Stephen G. Breyer, HLS '64: Supreme Court Justice and Former Law Professor

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“The Epitome of Fairness”

After working as a professor, Breyer served as Chief Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and was then nominated for the Supreme Court by President Clinton in 1994. Clinton said in his announcement, “Without dispute, [Breyer] is one of the outstanding jurists of our age. He has a clear grasp of the law, a boundless respect for the constitutional and legal rights of the American people, a searching and restless intellect, and a remarkable ability to explain complex subjects in understandable terms.”

Breyer was sworn in on August 3 as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice of the United States.

Breyer’s friends and colleagues note his pragmatic approach to law. “He is the epitome of fairness,” Dershowitz said. “He never allows an ideological thumb to be put on the scale of justice. He is a man of deep principle and pragmatism at the same time.”

Fried pointed to the continuity between Breyer’s work as a professor and as a justice. “What stands out is an attempt to find reasons and reason in a morass of difficult political controversy,” he said. Fried also remarked on Breyer’s polite demeanor. “His opinions on the court never indulge in any kind of sarcasm...or the dismissive characterization of the views of the other side,” he said. “There’s the total lack of any nastinesshe just doesn’t have it in him.”

According to others in his field, Breyer’s thoughtfulness is illustrated in the arguments and the often complex questions or hypotheticals that he poses on the Supreme Court. “His questions to lawyers arguing before the Court are masterful explorations of practical consequences as well as doctrinal distinctions,” Minow wrote.

Breyer’s intricate arguments are apparent in the numerous length dissents that he has written and presented. He wrote a 44-page dissent District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the Supreme Court struck down a D.C. regulation that banned gun ownership and upheld the right to keep and bear firearms for the purpose of self-defense.

Breyer is typically seen as a more liberal member of the Supreme Court, holding the belief that the Constitution is a “living document” whose broad language should be interpreted according to the changing needs of the country. Breyer’s most recent book, “Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View,” explored the Supreme Court’s role in interpreting the Constitution.

On the topic of how to interpret the Constitution, Breyer explained in a NPR interview in 2011, "Much in the Constitution is written in a very general way. Words like 'freedom of speech' do not define themselves. Nor does the word 'liberty'...The application of those values changes as the circumstances change.”

Maintaining Ties

Despite the fact that Breyer has not worked at Harvard Law School since 1980, he has maintained many friendships from his time there. Ogletree and Breyer have remained close, spending time together with their respective grandchildren.

Dershowitz said that he and Breyer have been close friends for “half a century.” The night that Breyer was appointed to the Supreme Court, he came to Dershowitz’s house to celebrate. Dershowitz plays poker with Breyer from time to time as well, but said, “since he became a judge, he no longer bluffs.”

—Staff writer Molly E. Wharton can be reached at molly.wharton@thecrimson.com

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