Mar 22, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Justice Stephen Breyer on politics and the rule of law

Photo: Axios on HBO

In an interview with "Axios on HBO," Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer urged Americans to re-engage in civics and vote — and not to expect the judiciary to resolve political questions.

Driving the news: It's more than knowing that "judges are not just shouldn't-be-politicians," he said. "They're very bad politicians. Don't get involved in that. That's not your job."

The state of play: Breyer, whom Bill Clinton named to the court in 1994, joined me for a wide-ranging "Axios on HBO" interview at the Supreme Court on Feb. 25, weeks before the coronavirus triggered a national emergency in the U.S. and prompted the court to postpone oral arguments.

  • When I asked him whether the rule of law is in trouble today, he responded, "It's always in trouble. It's always touch-and-go. ... The rule of law means a willingness to accept decisions you don't like, and they might be wrong."
  • The coronavirus came up just once in our conversation — when I asked if the U.S. legal system is equipped to deal with questions connected to globalization.
  • His answer was essentially yes — that while judges look at what's going on in other countries, ultimately cases here depend on U.S. laws, not geopolitics.
  • "There are all kinds of things that now have a world basis," but decisions still revolve around "primarily this document, the Constitution."

I asked Breyer what most Americans get wrong about the Supreme Court. He said, "I think the most common perception, which is wrong, in my opinion, is they think that we're just junior-league politicians and they think that all these cases are decided on political grounds."

  • "We won't always get it right, but we're trying to do our best to figure out how law applies in this situation," he said. "And that's sometimes pretty tough. And the decisions people think are so obvious, they're not so obvious."
  • "Look, I am who I am. I was brought up in San Francisco. I went to public schools. I grew up in the '50s, which I like. I think I was lucky. And I spent my time teaching. And you are who you are."

He declined to discuss President Trump's recent call for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor to recuse themselves from cases involving his administration —though Breyer said it has to be a very high bar for a justice to step back.

  • "If you're in a court of appeals and you're uncertain, you know, it's a sort of borderline, take yourself out of it," Breyer said. "Because there are a lot of other judges who can step in."
  • But on the Supreme Court, "If you take yourself out of a case, it could affect the result. And therefore, you have to be careful on the one hand to take yourself out of the case if there is an ethical conflict of some kind, and not to take yourself out of the case if there isn't, because you have to participate."

Between the lines: Breyer repeatedly declined to discuss controversies or upcoming cases and said it's obvious why.

  • "We're here for 320 million Americans, and they think all kinds of different things," he said. "And if they should have the good luck or the bad luck to be in front of a court, whatever kind of judge you are, whether it's in what court it is, it doesn't matter. They must have the feeling that you will be fair."

I asked Breyer if the First Amendment is as safe as it used to be in this era of misinformation and rising authoritarianism.

  • He questioned the premise, recalling past suppressions including in World War I. "It's more now protected, I think, than it was, certainly, then," Breyer said. "And of course, I have confidence in the First Amendment — and we depend on it." That includes a free press, he said, and a means to public opinion that is "informed."

One fun thing: Breyer said he sometimes follows current events on Twitter, "but I never answer." When I asked if he reads President Trump's tweets, he told me, "I don't want to make a news story out of this, but I will, sometimes, sure."

The bottom line: At 81, he said he feels healthy and he has no plans to retire. Who the president is and what the balance on the court could become is "not totally irrelevant" for a justice to consider, he said. But, as for retirement, "I don't really think about it" and "I enjoy what I'm doing."

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