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Stephen Breyer worries about Supreme Court’s public standing in current political era

In an expansive, two-hour lecture at Harvard Law School, Breyer bemoaned the common practice — by journalists, senators and others — of referring to justices by the presidents who appointed them and of describing the nine by their conservative or liberal approach to the law.

“These are more than straws in the wind,” the 82-year-old Breyer said. “They reinforce the thought, likely already present in the reader’s mind, that Supreme Court justices are primarily political officials or ‘junior league’ politicians themselves rather than jurists. The justices tend to believe that differences among judges mostly reflect not politics but jurisprudential differences. That is not what the public thinks.”

Breyer also warned against proposals to expand the size of the Supreme Court from its current nine members. Public trust was “gradually built” over the centuries, he said, and any discussion of change should take account of today’s public acceptance of the court’s rulings, even those as controversial as the 2000 Bush v. Gore case that settled a presidential election.

“The public now expects presidents to accept decisions of the court, including those that are politically controversial,” he said. “The court has become able to impose a significant check — a legal check — upon the Executive’s actions in cases where the Executive strongly believes it is right.”

He said people “whose initial instincts may favor important structural … changes, such as … ‘court-packing'” should “think long and hard before embodying those changes in law.”

Court expansion proposals have been raised by liberal advocates disheartened by the long building conservatism of the Supreme Court and its relatively new 6-3 conservative-liberal makeup, since last fall’s death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former President Donald Trump’s selection of Amy Coney Barrett to succeed her.

Breyer is one of the three liberals, yet he emphasized on Tuesday he believes his differences with colleagues are jurisprudential, rather than based on ideology or politics.

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The court’s six conservatives were appointed by Republican presidents, the three liberals by Democratic presidents. Breyer said in his speech that decades earlier such political references would not have been part of news coverage. But decades earlier, there was not such neat political and ideological symmetry.

Republican appointees, such as Justice John Paul Stevens, a 1975 choice of President Gerald Ford, ended up voting with the liberal wing of the bench. Stevens, who retired in 2010, was the last of his kind in this modern era, when presidents carefully screen for ideology and justices rarely break expectations.

He also lamented the state of today’s Senate screening of judicial candidates.

“The Senate confirmation process has changed over the past two or three decades, becoming more partisan with senators far more divided along party lines,” he said. “Senators will often describe a nominee they oppose as too ‘liberal’ or too ‘conservative.’ What they say, reported by the press to their constituents, reinforces the view that politics, not legal merits, drives Supreme Court decisions.”

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Breyer’s speech, delivered as he stood against a Harvard Law crimson backdrop and carried over Zoom, reflected his own broad reading of constitutional guarantees, as well as his aspirations and fears for today’s judiciary.

Breyer has written some of the most forceful opinions attempting to preserve landmarks on abortion rights and school desegregation. Unlike his colleagues on the right wing, he has also endorsed the broad regulatory power of government to protect workers, consumers and the environment.

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A former law professor who never lost his academic air, Breyer devoted most of his speech to the high court’s roots of power before delving into some of his current concerns. “It’s a long lecture,” he warned at the outset of the event, noting that he would take a break midway through.

He wove in references to his…

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