Justice Stephen Breyer rejected the notion that the U.S. Supreme Court has a pro-business slant and said the court doesn’t rule in favor of companies any more frequently than it has historically.
“I looked back,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview in which he discussed his new book. “I couldn’t find a tremendous difference in the percentage of cases. They’ve always done pretty well.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce won at least a partial victory in 13 of the 16 cases in which it filed a brief during the court term that concluded in June. The business trade group has won at least half its cases every year for more than a decade.
Breyer also said that partisan politics doesn’t influence the court’s actions, even in cases with political ramifications, including the decision this year that allowed unlimited corporate and union campaign spending, and the Bush v. Gore ruling that decided the 2000 presidential election.
“I don’t see that politics,” Breyer said. “It would be bad if it were there. And I don’t see it.”
The 72-year-old Breyer, who was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994, serves on a court that now may split along party lines in some high-profile cases.
The five Republican appointees all were in the majority in the campaign finance case, known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Of the four Democratic appointees now on the court, three were in dissent, and the fourth, Justice Elena Kagan, had defended the spending limits when she was the Obama administration’s top Supreme Court advocate. Kagan joined the court in August and took the bench this week for the start of the new term.
The campaign finance ruling has unleashed a wave of corporate contributions to outside groups and may boost Republican chances to seize control of Congress in the November elections. In the first four weeks of September alone, Republican-leaning groups spent more than $33 million to sway congressional elections, more than the Democratic and Republican congressional fundraising committees combined.
Breyer, who dissented in the ruling, defended his colleagues’ motives in the case even as he criticized their reasoning.
“They were remaining consistent with a long-held view,” he said. “Now, that isn’t a Republican, Democratic political view. That is a view of the nature of law. I think it was wrong.”
In his book, “Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View,” Breyer argues for a pragmatic approach toward the law, one that focuses less on the specific words of the Constitution and statutes than on the purpose behind them and the likely consequences of the court’s ruling. He contrasts his approach with originalism, Justice Antonin Scalia’s method of interpreting the Constitution in accordance with its meaning at the time of adoption.
In the interview, Breyer said originalism “has something to it.” At the same time, “there’s an old tradition in American law, even older than what Justice Scalia thinks his tradition is old as,” Breyer said.
“American judges, when they interpret the law, are prudent and pragmatic,” Breyer said. “They look for purposes. And they’re careful.”
Breyer said the court would benefit from having a justice with experience in electoral politics. The court hasn’t had a former elected official since the 2006 retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a one-time state legislator.
“At the same time, there’s only one vacancy every so often,” Breyer said. “And so a president has to make decisions.”
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