Summary of the event
On April 7, 2021
It is 5:00 pm
Judge Breyer addresses the courtroom from the podium (Art Lien)
Emphasizing that the authority of the Supreme Court hinges on the public’s confidence in the court, Judge Stephen Breyer used Tuesday speech at Harvard Law School Challenge efforts to expand the number of seats on the Supreme Court. The 82-year-old claimed that the public’s confidence in the court lies in the public’s perception that “the court is guided by the legal principle rather than by politics” and thus would be eroded if the court’s structure was changed in response to concerns about political influence in the Supreme Court.
The text of Breyer’s prepared notes, which he gave in his speech for about two hours, included references to the Roman philosopher Cicero, Henry IV of Scheiber, the plague of Albert Camus and Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who chronicled early American life. 19th century. (Breyer, who is known for giving speeches in French, did not indicate whether he read the last two sources in English or the original French.) A popular topic among some Democrats, particularly since the death of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September 2020, when then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell swiftly moved to confirm Judge Amy Connie Barrett after he refused to hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee. He replaced Judge Antonin Scalia, in March 2016. As a candidate, President Joe Biden refused to support the expansion of the court, promising instead to set up a committee to examine potential Supreme Court reforms more broadly.
Breyer’s opposition to expanding the court is based on his belief that the Supreme Court’s authority rests on the “public’s willingness to respect its decisions,” even when it disagrees with those rulings. Breyer cited two factors, he suggested, that “give rise to concern” about public acceptance of the court’s decisions. First, he noted that there was generally “increasing public suspicion and mistrust in all government institutions.” Second, he continued, there was what Breyer described as a perception – he blamed the propensity of the press and politicians to classify judges as “liberal” or “conservative” – that decisions are driven by politics, not legal principles. Breyer concluded that adding seats to the court to counter the perception that the court has become overly politicized “can only fuel this perception and further erode that trust.”
In the Harvard video, Briar looked more agile and lively. He did not discuss another common topic among liberals: his call to step down from court to allow Biden to nominate his successor.
This post was Originally published in Howe on the Court.