Supreme Court Justice Breyer weighs in during conversation at Aspen Institute

Jeanne McGovern
The Aspen Times
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer talks during The Aspen Institute's McCloskey Speaker Series conversation Saturday, July 7, 2018, at the Greenwald Pavilion in Aspen. (Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times).
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

If the assembled crowd at Greenwald Pavilion on Saturday thought they might get a glimpse into who might be the next member of the U.S. Supreme Court, Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer quickly dispelled the idea with a quirky nod.

Later, he subtly assured those concerned about the best route for affecting change.

“This document lays out the frontier — and some of them are pretty important frontiers,” Breyer said to a packed house while holding up a tightly folded copy of the U.S. Constitution. “People need to make up their own minds, and if you don’t like what’s going on, go to the ballot box.”

Breyer focused his conversation on the intricacies of the law while being candid about plenty of issues facing the Supreme Court and United States.

“The law is complicated,” said the 79-year-old Breyer, who was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1994 by then-President Bill Clinton. “It is pragmatic, undogmatic and adaptive — and slow-moving. … It’s messy and tinkering on the edge at all times.”

Breyer then noted several high-profile cases that have caught the nation’s eye, as well as praised those cases that the public never saw where the law — down to a “comma” — accomplished the job. He also chose to address his role as dissenter at times.

“The best kind of dissension means you’re going to point out something and hope there is a major change, if not now, in the future,” he said.

Still, the looming decision about who will be nominated to the nation’s highest court, and its effect on the balance of the direction of the Supreme Court, could not be ignored.

“I don’t think many of the American people have an appreciation for the process,” said moderator Joshua Johnson, founding host of “1A,” a national news/talk radio show produced by WAMU in Washington D.C. and distributed by NPR. “They are waiting on the president to nominate a successor and …”

President Donald Trump is expected to announce Monday night his final choice for a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. According to The Associated Press, Trump said he is focused on four people and “of the four people I have it down to three or two.”

Trump’s contenders include federal appeals court judges Brett Kavanaugh and Raymond Kethledge, with judges Thomas Hardiman and Amy Coney Barrett also considered in the mix.

The concern, noted Johnson, is how this decision could affect such monumental cases such as Roe v. Wade.

Breyer would not submit, again turning his words to the importance of the process and his commitment — and that of the entire Supreme Court — to the greater good.

“I am not going to comment on these cases,” he said. “But I will say this messy, complicated, multi-institutional thing called the law means we’re not always going to agree.

“But what I will do is do my job. That’s what my father would have told me, ‘Do your job.’”

And, at the end of Saturday’s conversation, as thunder clapped loudly outside the venue, Johnson questioned Breyer about his future as a member of the Court as “lots of Americans are deeply concerned about the direction of the Court … and look to you.”

“What I will say is that I will do my job as long as I can do my job properly,” Breyer said.

Saturday’s discussion with Breyer was the first in a series of talks as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series at The Aspen Institute. The next one, “Reimagining How Cities Thrive” with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in conversation with Aspen Institute president and CEO Dan Porterfield, is July 11.

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