Stephen Breyer: ‘I’m still an optimist’

Instead, the 83-year-old retired justice spoke widely about the rule of law and generally remained an optimist.

“I think for a long time in America we have had a system that has adapted — with its drawbacks and going the wrong way from time to time,” he said.

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“But overall, I’m still an optimist,” Breyer added.

Breyer made no mention of the string of losses to liberals at the end of the previous term on abortion, gun rights, the environment and religious freedom. Instead, he addressed an audience of attorneys attending an American Bar Association conference in Chicago, echoing tensions from previous speeches, and telling the audience that the work of the ABA, and attorneys in general, is important.

He said judges “need the outside help”, even though they may not think so.

Breyer repeated a story about commitments he gave to a foreign judge several years ago about the rule of law. He said he told her about Bush v. Gore — the controversial Supreme Court decision that decided the 2000 presidential election — and how then-Democrat Senator Harry Reid once emphasized that after the advice was issued that there should be no rioting in the streets goods .
“What Reid said,” Breyer told me, is that you might know you have the rule of law “when enough people are willing to accept an opinion that touches them personally and that they don’t like.” (Breyer made no mention of recent events, including the January 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol.)

“This is not a land of pure ups you know,” Breyer told the visiting judge.

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“There was a civil war, there was slavery, 80 years of Jim Crow segregation,” Breyer said broadly. “But gradually we’re trying…if this generation doesn’t do it, maybe the next.”

Breyer started his speech with a joke after being credited for writing over 500 opinions from the couch. “There is one question I have about your introduction,” he said. “You said I wrote 525 opinions — but why is the world such a mess?” he said with a laugh.

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