“Reading the Constitution”: The Role of the Supreme Court in the United States

“Reading the Constitution”: The Role of the Supreme Court in the United States

Justice Stephen Breyer. Editorial credit: mark reinstein / Shutterstock.com

By Linda Nwoke

Justice Stephen Breyer, the notable jurist and scholar, left a mark on the legal landscape of the United States while serving as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court for over 27 years. President Bill Clinton appointed him in 1994, and his tenure was committed to the practice of ‘pragmatism law,’ as he deeply understood the law’s intersection with society.

While on the bench, he contributed significantly to constitutional interpretations, demonstrating the importance of balancing individual rights with the broader community’s needs. Interestingly, his opinion often reflected a nuanced approach to tackling complex legal issues, earning him a reputation as a thoughtful and influential voice on the Court.

Notable Contributions 

While serving on the Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer advocated for a practical approach to interpreting the Constitution. He often considered real-world consequences and societal implications when making judicial decisions. The judge usually balanced protecting individual rights with promoting the public interest and displayed judicial restraint in his approach. He frequently argued that courts should defer to elected officials and the democratic process when feasible and cautioned against judicial activism.

Justice Breyer was known for citing foreign legal sources in his opinions and advocating for a broader perspective on legal issues that considered global norms and practices. He often made complex legal concepts more understandable to the public. His notable decisions include cases involving civil rights, environmental protection, and executive power, which helped shape the Court’s jurisprudence on a wide range of issues affecting American society.

Understanding Justice Breyer’s Perspective: Early life and history 

The San Francisco-born Justice recently wrote a book that delves deep into his judicial philosophy, revealing the logic behind his approach and offering invaluable insights into the workings of the highest Court in the land, the Supreme Court of the United States.

Notably, Justice Breyer’s approach to interpreting the law is rooted in the belief that legal principles should adapt to meet the evolving needs of society. Hence, central to Justice Breyer’s new book, “Reading the Constitution: Why I Chose Pragmatism, Not Textualism,” are various recurring themes that illustrate his vision for the judiciary. Consistent with his actions while on the bench, he stressed the importance of judicial restraint in his book, promoting a balanced approach that respects the democratic process while safeguarding individual rights. He believes real-world consequences rather than abstract theories should guide decisions.

The book is described as a unique insight into Justice Breyer’s judicial philosophy and approach to constitutional interpretation, going beyond a scholarly piece. It employs compelling narrative, engaging storytelling, and thoughtful analysis to demystify the complexities of legal reasoning for a broader audience.

Drawing on his extensive experience, Justice Breyer navigates intricate legal principles with clarity and precision, making the book accessible to legal experts and lay readers. He includes historical context, real-world examples, and philosophical reflections, inviting the readers to reconsider their understanding of the Constitution and the judiciary’s role in shaping American society.

Reviewing the Book with the Media 

During a CNN interview, the former Supreme Court Justice tells the host, Fareed Zakaria, Global Public Square (GPS), how his book deliberates and debates how judges should interpret the law. Citing specific examples, he addressed the conservative majority’s approach to abortion rights, exemplified by the 2022 decision in Dobbs v Jackson. Specifically, Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion overturned the landmark Roe v Wade ruling. In his view, the judge reflects the textualist perspective prevalent among conservative justices. Justice Breyer criticized the approach, evidenced by his dissent in the Dobbs case.

Arguably, the conservative majorities rely on original intent, which often results in a single, definitive answer; he challenged this approach, arguing that it oversimplifies the complexities of legal interpretation and fails to account for the evolving nature of societal values.

According to former Justice Breyer, “The way I decide cases, like snails… is not stopping at the words… but there is more to look at because these cases are often complicated.” He reiterated the need for judges to consider issues within a broader contextual factor beyond literal interpretation, such as legislative intent and societal values.

In his book, he recounts a portion where he explains the nature of appellate judging to a fifth-grade audience. The story revolves around a biology professor on a train with a basket of live snails, sparking a debate about whether snails qualify as animals entitled to half-fare tickets. Justice Breyer uses this anecdote to illustrate the interpretive complexity judges face, emphasizing the need to apply legal principles to diverse and sometimes unexpected situations.

“The kind of thing we do is this… Is it talking about dogs and cats? Maybe rabbits are not talking about snails. Is a snail an animal?”. Breyer’s illustration indicates the broader challenges faced by appellate judges. He affirms that appellate judges must grapple with complex issues like the right to bear arms or freedom of speech, emphasizing constitutional interpretation’s diverse and evolving nature.

Further, Justice Breyer critiques the historical focus of originalism, stating that it neglects the perspectives of marginalized groups that were not represented during the framing of the Constitution. “If you look at the law as a bigger picture, it is an institution created by human beings, largely to allow human beings to live together more peacefully and productively.” This broader perspective, he explains, is essential for maintaining a democratic society and upholding the rule of law.

Justice Breyer also noted that selective historical analysis can lead to interpretations divergent from the original intent of the Constitution’s framers and warns against the potential erosion of democratic principles and the rule of law if the Court’s understanding of the Constitution becomes overly rigid and divorced from contemporary societal values.

Impact on Legal Discourse

Since its publication, Justice Breyer’s book has sparked vigorous debate within legal circles. Scholars and practitioners alike have been compelled to engage with the arguments, grappling with the implications for constitutional interpretation and judicial decision-making. While some have hailed Justice Breyer’s book as a timely intervention in ongoing legal debates, others have raised valid critiques regarding its application in practice.

Regardless, through the lens of Justice Breyer’s book, the reader obtains unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Supreme Court. His insights into the dynamics between justices, the importance of consensus-building, and the role of precedent offer a rare glimpse into the complexities of the judicial process. By demystifying the Court’s operations, Justice Breyer seeks to foster greater transparency and understanding among the public.

Relevance to Current Events and Challenges

The former Supreme Court judge’s new book is appealing, especially during a period marked by social unrest and political polarization. Justice Breyer’s book is significant and relevant, especially in its attempt to address contemporary legal issues and challenges, such as executive power, civil liberties, and the rule of law. The former Supreme Court judge offers a roadmap for navigating stormy waters.

Critiques and Counterarguments

Despite all the positives, some critics, especially legal scholars, have questioned the feasibility of his proposals. One group has cited concerns about judicial activism and the potential for abuse of power. The other category has raised substantive objections to specific arguments in the book, prompting an interesting debate within the legal community.

Yet, it is evident that Justice Breyer’s new book significantly contributes to the legal literature. Offering a compassionate lens on the law forces one to reconsider preconceived notions and engage in thoughtful dialogue about the future of our legal system, especially those interested and concerned about the future of American law.

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