Liberal Justice Breyer: Other Side ‘Out to Lunch’

Wednesday, 16 Feb 2011 09:48 PM

By Marti Lotman

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Pssst: Liberal Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer confesses to using a secret tactic to disagree when the high court lays down the law of the land: “When I’m in dissent, I try to reveal out of clear, calm, argument that the other side is totally out to lunch.”

The quip brought a round of applause from an audience of more than 1,000 attending Breyer’s speech Wednesday at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla.

However, Breyer then sheathed his political sword and delivered a bipartisan message. He noted that he is a great friend of fellow Justice Antonin Scalia, who is considered the conservative cornerstone on the current court. And he confided that he never has heard a voice raised in the chambers.

Story continues below the video of the full speech.

Breyer, whom President Bill Clinton appointed to the court in 1994, emphasized the importance of upholding the rule of law and democratic institutions. Violence and protests pervading much of the world prove what happens when law and democracy are absent, and armies step in, he indicated.

“Eventually, the troops will have to leave,” Breyer said, adding that that’s when the rule of law becomes important. “We will accept the law because it is preferable to the alternative. Go turn on the TV and see what happens in countries that solve their problems through violence.”

He argued that, although people— especially younger generations — distrust some institutions, the nation needs to uphold these institutions because this is a country of 300 million people with varying viewpoints who are trying to create a symbiotic, democratic environment.

Failing to uphold the institutions will imperil democracy for future generations, he said.

Part of this task is understanding that the Constitution is a living document, Breyer said. This means that its principles must be applied to modern issues or it will wind up hanging on a museum wall, useless.

Breyer later revealed that the impetus for writing his most recent book, “Making our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View” was to tell people about an institution — the U.S. judicial system — and educate them about its importance.

“You can’t let judges off the hook, we have a responsibility, too,” Breyer said.

He concluded with an exhortation that brought a standing ovation: “Know your history. Understand your institutions. Participate in the community. It’s not a cliché, it’s a reality.”

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