The soon-to-retire U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer reflected on his career and the complicated impact of the highest court as he accepted an award Tuesday from the University of Virginia.
Breyer, 83, is the latest recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law, UVa’s highest external honor. Sponsored jointly by the university and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Monticello, the award is given annually in place of honorary degrees, according to UVa President Jim Ryan during his remarks.
Speaking to a full room at the UVa School of Law’s Ruth Caplin Theatre, Breyer reflected on his nearly three decades on the Supreme Court of the United States and the legacy he leaves behind when he retires at the end of this term. He is set to be replaced this year by Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Most of the event was facilitated by Risa Goluboff, the law school’s dean, and a former clerk of Breyer’s. She asked Breyer what his thoughts were on how people perceive him as a “pragmatic” judge.
Breyer said he mostly agreed with the perception.
“The sense in which I accept pragmatism is a little bit more complicated than what someone will think when they’re reading a newspaper and will think [that] pragmatism is that you do whatever works in this instance and makes things better,” he said. “It’s not quite that.”
As part of a complex network of legal systems, Breyer said he has always considered how a decision might trickle down into other systems which then cascade into others. Breyer said this is what he considers to be his form of pragmatism.
Expanding on that point, Goluboff asked Breyer about his role in airline deregulation, a decision credited with greatly decreasing both the cost of flying and the quality of service.
Breyer said he still regularly checks the price of plane tickets and said the cost is still significantly less than it was before deregulation began. He said the decision involved a lot of cooperation and compromise with the airlines.
Breyer recalled discussing the possible impact with a former United Airlines vice president.
“I remember he said, ‘Stephen, you will deregulate prices and the people you’re trying to help — the people used to having to carry the chicken coops on the back of their cars to Texas — will fly and the planes will fill up and the prices will fall,’” he said. “Then he said ‘And Stephen, you will hate it,’ but he was right and the prices did drop.”
His ability to work with others who don’t share his views is crucial, Breyer said. Later in the program when answering audience questions, Breyer urged students to talk with people who share different views. Let them talk, he said, and when they share a view that you agree with, latch onto that. He reflected on this lesson he learned from Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
“The country is more divided now in many ways. It’s easy to go sit and say how right you are and how wrong some other person is, particularly to the people who agree with you,” he said. “You can work together, just don’t be so cynical. It’s not good to just sit there. It gives nobody anything. Go participate in public life.”
When asked about the impact of the Supreme Court’s decisions, Breyer said it’s often difficult to know how a decision will be perceived until years later. Citing the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared “separate but equal” to be unconstitutional and paved the way for desegregation, Breyer said it was not the verdict alone that effected change.
Recounting a lengthy story about the verdict and the eventual efforts to desegregate Little Rock, Arkansas, Breyer shared the opinion that the Supreme Court’s verdict could have been overlooked were it not for efforts from the executive and legislative branches as well as the rest of the country.
“I wanted that description to go on for some length because I wanted to be clear of the need to understand that [the Brown v. Board of Education decision] took courage,” he said. “Who knows what could have happened? But we came through it and, although life is not perfect at the moment, I like to say it’s a continuous progress, a continuous effort, which requires far more than judges and which requires far more than lawyers.”
Breyer also discussed the values of ideals and experimenting, which are tenets of both UVa and Jefferson’s philosophy. The words apply to both Jefferson and the United States at large, he said.
“I saw during COVID that there were groups in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who went out in the neighborhoods and were helping people who needed food or were old and having a hard time getting around. That wasn’t confined to just Massachusetts; it existed right here in Charlottesville and across the country,” he said.
“I think if someone gives us these challenges, which we certainly are seeing, we are going to create a country where people are respected as individuals,” he said.