Justice Stephen Breyer: Making Our Democracy Work

THU, SEP 30, 2010 (1:11:52)

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer discusses the role and future of the Court in American democracy, and his book Making Democracy Work: A Judges View.

The Supreme Court is one of the most extraordinary institutions in our system of government. Charged with the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution, the nine unelected justices of the Court have the awesome power to strike down laws enacted by our elected representatives. Why does the public accept the Court's decisions as legitimate and follow them, even when those decisions are highly unpopular? What must the Court do to maintain the public's faith? How can the Court help make our democracy work?

Today we assume that when the Court rules, the public will obey. But Breyer declares that we cannot take the public's confidence in the Court for granted. He reminds us that at various moments in our history, the Court's decisions were disobeyed or ignored. And through investigations of past cases, concerning the Cherokee Indians, slavery, and Brown v. Board of Education, he brilliantly captures the steps--and the missteps--the Court took on the road to establishing its legitimacy as the guardian of the Constitution.

Justice Breyer discusses what the Court must do going forward to maintain that public confidence and argues for interpreting the Constitution in a way that works in practice. He forcefully rejects competing approaches that look exclusively to the Constitution's text or to the 18th-century views of the framers. Instead, he advocates a pragmatic approach that applies unchanging constitutional values to ever-changing circumstances--an approach that will best demonstrate to the public that the Constitution continues to serve us well. The Court, he believes, must also respect the roles that other actors--such as the president, Congress, administrative agencies, and the states--play in our democracy, and he emphasizes the Court's obligation to build cooperative relationships with them.

Finally, Justice Breyer examines the Court's recent decisions concerning the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, contrasting these decisions with rulings concerning the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. He uses these cases to show how the Court can promote workable government by respecting the roles of other constitutional actors without compromising constitutional principles.

+ BIO: Stephen Breyer

Stephen Breyer, born in San Francisco in 1938, is a graduate of Stanford, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He taught law for many years at Harvard and has also worked as a Supreme Court law clerk, a Justice Department lawyer, an Assistant Watergate Special Prosecutor, and Chief Counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 1990 he was appointed an appellate court judge by President Carter. In 1994 he was appointed a Supreme Court Justice by President Clinton.

+ BIO: Jeff Shesol

Jeff Shesol is a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a speechwriting and communications strategy firm. He became a speechwriter for President Clinton after Clinton read and liked his first book, Mutual Contempt. Before he became a speechwriter, Jeff wrote and drew a syndicated comic strip, "Thatch," which appeared daily in more than 150 newspapers. A Rhodes Scholar, Jeff got his masters in history from Oxford University in 1993. He was the 2002 Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies at Princeton University, where he taught a course on the history of the presidential speech.

Partner
Harvard Book Store
Series
Keeping It Civil Series
Our Democracy Series