Constitution illuminated byU.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer
Justice Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court addressed an overflow crowd at the 12th annual Willard H. Pedrick Lecture on the topic, "Our Democratic Constitution." He was introduced by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer detailed his vision of the United States Constitution and a citizen’s role in making it work in his speech, “Our Democratic Constitution,” delivered on Tuesday, Feb. 12, to more than 700 people at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Breyer made his remarks at the 12th annual Willard H. Pedrick Lecture, named in honor of the college’s founding dean. Breyer was introduced by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who described him as a colleague, friend and a great judge. Breyer said that, when he joined the Supreme Court, he was very nervous and was told, “Just follow Sandra Day O’Connor around and you’ll learn.” Breyer said he and O’Connor have worked together to encourage teaching high school students about government and the Constitution. “What this document is actually about … its seven articles and 27 amendments … if you have to pick out one word that describes this document, it’s democracy,” Breyer said. “Those seven articles create a certain kind of government … where judges don’t tell people what to do, the people decide for themselves what to do, what kind of government, what kind of community they want, what kind of state, what kind of city, town, nation they want. They do that among themselves and use their elected officials to translate that into law.” Breyer said his 14-year stint on the nation’s highest court has given him a special perspective.
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“We have a steady diet of Constitutional issues,” he said. “The difference that steady diet makes is that after 10 to 12 years, you begin to see the document as a whole.” Breyer said the essence of the Constitution is a certain kind of democracy, which protects human liberties, divides power so that no one becomes too powerful, assures a degree of equality and insists upon a rule of law. Under this document, Breyer said, it’s not the job of the Supreme Court to tell people what to do, but to “patrol the rails, the boundaries, the frontiers” of a Democratic space, in which individuals fight, argue and discuss issues to decide what kind of country they want. “Life is tough on the frontier sometimes,” he said. “Is abortion on this side of the boundary or the other? Is school prayer? … It’s not surprising that we’re split 5-4 on many of the issues.” For example, Breyer analyzed the issue of campaign finance legislation, which limits the dollar amount an individual can contribute to a candidate. The Constitution says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. One side argues that limiting contributions limits an individual’s ability to express his views through the candidate he supports. The other side argues that if the very wealthy trump the less wealthy who cannot afford to contribute as much, then their views are drowned out, the enabling of one to some degree disenables the other, he said. “We have arguments related to free speech on both sides,” Breyer said. “When there’s something on both sides in favor of free speech – the creating of the marketplace where lots of people can get in even if they don’t have any money versus the reluctance of cutting off of anybody, frankly. “Now what do we do? Ah, I wish I could tell you. I can say what we did do. What we did do was say this matter is up to the Legislature, as long as they are trying to perfect, to create a better public discussion. But it will require some supervision.” “That’s where we ended up, isn’t it,” Breyer said, turning to O’Connor. Breyer said the Constitution only works when citizens participate in its vision. “The Constitution creates a Democratic space, creates Democratic institutions, because it assumes that you will go out there and fill them, go out there and participate,” he said. “It creates the opportunity to say what kind of city, town, state, nation you want, because it expects that you will seize that opportunity and do it.” The Willard H. Pedrick Lecture was established in 1997 by the Pedrick family in memory of the founding dean of the College of Law. The annual lecture brings to the law school outstanding legal scholars, jurists or practitioners to enrich the intellectual life of the College and the community.