Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court Majority: You’re Doing It Wrong

One day in 1993, Stephen Breyer, then the chief judge of the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which sits in Boston, was riding his bicycle in Harvard Square when he was hit by a car. He was taken to Mount Auburn Hospital with broken ribs and a punctured lung. While he was recovering, he was visited by three White House officials. They had flown up to interview him for a possible nomination to the United States Supreme Court.

The vetting went well enough, and Breyer was invited to Washington to meet the President, Bill Clinton. Breyer’s doctors advised against flying, so he took the train, in some discomfort. The meeting with Clinton did not go well. According to Jeffrey Toobin’s “The Nine,” a book about the Supreme Court, Clinton found Breyer “heartless.” “I don’t see enough humanity,” he complained. “I want a judge with soul.” Breyer was told to go home. They would call.

He knew that things had gone poorly. “There’s only two people who aren’t convinced I’m going to be on the Supreme Court,” he told a fellow-judge. “One is me and the other is Clinton.” He was right. The phone never rang. The seat went to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ginsburg was a cool customer, too, but she knew which buttons to push. In her interview with Clinton, she talked about the death of her mother and about helping her husband get through law school after he was stricken with testicular cancer. Clinton loved catch-in-the-throat stories like that. Ginsburg was confirmed by the Senate 96–3.

A year went by, there was another Supreme Court vacancy, and Breyer was again in the mix. His candidacy was pushed by Ted Kennedy, with whom he had worked as the chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Kennedy was its chair. Clinton really wanted to nominate his Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, but Babbitt faced opposition from senators in Western states, and Breyer seemed politically hypoallergenic.

So Breyer was chosen. Still, the White House did not do him any favors. Clinton’s indecisiveness was an ongoing story in the press—it had taken him eighty-six days to pick Ginsburg—and the news coverage made it plain that Breyer was not his first or even his second choice. The White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, told reporters that, of the candidates being considered, Breyer was “the one with the fewest problems.”

Clinton announced the selection without even waiting for Breyer to come down from Boston. When Breyer did show up, a few days later, he said, “I’m glad I didn’t bring my bicycle down.” Famous last words. In 2011, he broke his collarbone in another biking accident near his home in Cambridge, and in 2013 he fractured his right shoulder and underwent shoulder-replacement surgery after crashing his bicycle near the Korean War Veterans Memorial, on the National Mall. He was seventy-four. You have to give him credit. He gets right back on the horse.

Since his appointment to the Court, Breyer has published several books on his jurisprudential views. His latest is “Reading the Constitution: Why I Chose Pragmatism, Not Textualism” (Simon & Schuster). It sums up his frustration with the court that he just stepped down from.

Clinton was not the only person who read Breyer as a technocrat. People felt he lacked a quality that Clinton could apparently summon at will—empathy. “He’s always been smarter than most of those around him,” the Yale constitutional-law professor Akhil Amar explained to a reporter, “so he’s had to learn how to get along with other people.”

That was his reputation at Harvard Law School, too, where he taught administrative law for many years before becoming a judge. “Breyer’s basic social instincts are conservative,” a Harvard colleague, Morton Horwitz, told the Times. “His legal culture is more liberal, and his very flexible pragmatism will enable him to give things a gentle spin in a liberal direction. But he’s a person without deep roots of any kind. He won’t develop a vision. . . . The words ‘social justice’ would somewhat embarrass him.”

It’s true that Breyer has a professorial presentation. He is cosmopolitan and erudite. He travels to other countries and is interested in their legal systems; reporters like to drop the fact that he has read “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” in French, twice. He is also, for a judge, relatively wealthy. His wife, Joanna Hare, a clinical psychologist at Dana-Farber, is the daughter of an English viscount.

Before joining the Court, Breyer showed few signs of being a social-justice warrior. He has, like the President who appointed him, neoliberal inclinations. He was instrumental in creating sentencing guidelines for federal judges that he later conceded were too rigid. He wrote a book on regulatory reform. And one of his proudest legislative achievements was working with Kennedy to deregulate the airline industry.

But he has an admirable temperament. Toobin called him “the sunniest individual to serve on the Supreme Court in a great many years.” Seated on a bench next to a lot of intellectual loners—Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, David Souter, Ginsburg herself—Breyer became a consensus seeker, if not always a consensus builder. He believed in reasoned discourse.

He had also learned, from watching Kennedy do business in the Senate, that compromise is how you get things done in government, and he understood that on an ideologically divided court the power is in the middle. Being a split-the-difference centrist, like his predecessor Lewis Powell, and like the Justice he was closest to, Sandra Day O’Connor, suited his personality, too.

Breyer loved the job and was reluctant to announce his retirement, throwing liberals who feared another R.B.G. fiasco into a panic. He stepped down at the end of the 2021-22 term, in time for President Joe Biden to put one of Breyer’s former clerks, Ketanji Brown Jackson, on the Court. Breyer is now back where he started, as a professor of administrative law at Harvard. Happily for the law school, there are now many dedicated bike lanes in Cambridge.

Horwitz was not entirely right about what George H. W. Bush called “the vision thing.” Beneath Breyer’s pragmatic, let-us-reason-together persona is the soul of a Warren Court liberal. The Warren Court is where Breyer’s judicial career began. After graduating from Harvard Law School, in 1964, he clerked for Justice Arthur Goldberg. It was, he said, “a court with a mission.” The mission was to realize the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.

Brown is Breyer’s touchstone. He calls the decision “an affirmation of justice itself.” Brown was decided in 1954, and it governs only segregation in public schools. This is because the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws,” the right under which Brown was decided, is a right that can be exercised only against states and their agencies. But Breyer understands Brown in a broader sense. He believes that the reasoning in Brown leads to the condemnation of any and all discrimination that is within the reach of government to eliminate.

Extending the spirit of Brown is what the 1964 Civil Rights Act was designed to do. The act was signed into law in July, just as Breyer was beginning his clerkship, and it did something that Congress had tried once before, in 1875: make it unlawful for public accommodations like hotels, theatres, and restaurants to discriminate on the basis of race. In 1883, in a blockbuster decision, the Supreme Court had thrown out that earlier act as unconstitutional. It ruled that the government cannot tell private parties whom they must serve.

Title II of the Civil Rights Act once again prohibited discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. But how are privately owned businesses like restaurants within the reach of the state? In October, 1964, three months after the act was signed into law, that question came before the Court in two challenges to the constitutionality of Title II: Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S., concerning a motel in Georgia that refused to serve Black travellers, and Katzenbach v. McClung, concerning a restaurant in Birmingham, Ollie’s Barbecue, that refused to seat Black customers. (They could use a takeout window.)

The Court ruled that Congress gets its power to ban discrimination in public accommodations from the commerce clause in Article I of the Constitution. (“Congress shall have power . . . to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”) This holding required the Court to find that the Heart of Atlanta Motel and Ollie’s Barbecue were, in fact, part of interstate commerce. And the Court so found.

Since the motel was patronized by people travelling from one state to another, and since the ingredients for some of the food served at Ollie’s came from outside Alabama, the Court held that the motel and the restaurant were part of commerce “among the several states” and therefore within the power of Congress to regulate. The Court declared the 1883 ruling “inapposite and without precedential value,” and the decision in both cases was unanimous. Breyer thinks that they were the most important rulings of his clerkship.

There was another case with far-reaching effects that was decided during Breyer’s clerkship: Griswold v. Connecticut. The plaintiffs, Estelle Griswold and C. Lee Buxton, opened a Planned Parenthood clinic in New Haven and were arrested for counselling married couples about birth-control devices, which were illegal under the state’s anti-contraception law. Griswold and Buxton argued that, since the law was unconstitutional, they could not be prosecuted for advising women to break it. In a 7–2 decision, the Court agreed. What constitutional provision did the Connecticut law violate? The right to privacy.

Justice William O. Douglas wrote the opinion of the Court, and it is a classic of judicial inventiveness. Nowhere does the Constitution mention a right to privacy, but Douglas proposed that “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.” By this jurisprudential alchemy, the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments could be interpreted as defining a “zone of privacy” whose penumbra would extend to the marital bedroom.

Douglas concluded his opinion with an encomium to marriage. He got quite worked up about it. “Marriage is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred,” he wrote. “It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any involved in our prior decisions.” Douglas was sixty-six. A year after Griswold, he divorced his twenty-six-year-old third wife, Joan Martin, to marry Cathleen Heffernan, who was twenty-two.

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