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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."

Go deeper

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Over 3,000 detained in protests across Russia demanding Navalny's release

Russian police officers beat protestesters at a rally against of jailing of oppositon leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on Saturday. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Police in Russia on Saturday arrested more than 3,300 people as protesters nationwide demanded that opposition leader Alexey Navalny be released from jail.

Details: Demonstrations began in the eastern regions of Russia and spread west to more than 60 cities.

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Arizona Republicans censure Cindy McCain and GOP governor

Combination images of Cindy McCain and Gov. Doug Ducey. Photo: FilmMagic/FilmMagic for U.S.VETS/Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Arizona Republican Party members voted on Saturday to censure prominent GOP figures Cindy McCain, Gov. Doug Ducey and former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who've all faced clashes with former President Trump.

Why it matters: Although the resolution is symbolic, this move plus the re-election of the Trump-endorsed Kelli Ward as state GOP chair shows the strong hold the former president has on the party in Arizona, despite President Biden winning the state in the 2020 election.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Education: Schools face an uphill battle to reopen during the pandemic.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong puts tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge — Pfizer to supply 40 million vaccine doses to lower-income countries — Brazil begins distributing AstraZeneca vaccine.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.