Stephen Breyer: ‘I’m still an optimist’

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Instead, the 83-year-old retired justice spoke broadly about the rule of law and maintained that he remains an optimist overall.

“I think over long periods of time we have in America a system that has adjusted — with its drawbacks and its 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 for liberals at the end of last term on abortion, gun rights, the environment and religious liberty. Instead, addressing an audience of lawyers attending an American Bar Association Conference in Chicago, he repeated strains from past speeches and told the audience that the work of the ABA, and lawyers in general, is important.

He said that judges “need the help from the outside,” even if they may think that they don’t.

Breyer repeated a story about assurances he gave to a judge visiting him from a foreign country 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-Democratic Sen. Harry Reid once emphasized that after the opinion was released that there was no rioting in the streets.
“What Reid said,” Breyer recounted, is that maybe you know you have the rule of law “when enough people are prepared to accept an opinion that affects them personally that they don’t like.” (Breyer made no mention of recent events including the January 6, 2021, US Capitol attack.)

“This has not been a country of sheer ups you know,” Breyer said he told the visiting judge.

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“There was a civil war, there was slavery, 80 years of Jim Crow segregation,” Breyer said speaking broadly. “But gradually we try … if this generation doesn’t, the next one might.”

Breyer began his talk with a joke after he was praised for writing over 500 opinions from the bench. “There is one question I have about your introduction,” he said. “You said I’ve written 525 opinions — but why is the world in such a mess?” he said to laughter.

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