The Supreme Court justice shared his thoughts on how the Constitution and rule of law help to make our democracy at GW’s Presidential Distinguished Event Series.
By Tatyana Hopkins
According to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, maintaining democracy has two not so simple steps.
“One, you follow the law,” he said. “Two, if you don’t like the law, you gather with other people, and you get it changed through a democratic process. And that’s in [the Constitution].”
In honor of Constitution Day, Justice Breyer joined the George Washington University community during a virtual conversation presented by GW’s Presidential Distinguished Event Series, where he discussed how the Supreme Court has used the Constitution to make decisions that impact the nation’s politics today.
The event, which included questions from members of the GW community, was moderated by Dayna Bowen Matthew, GW Law dean and Harold H. Greene Professor of Law, and Alan Morrison, Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest and Public Service Law.
Following the event, Justice Breyer met virtually with more than a dozen selected GW Law and undergrad students, several of whom had an opportunity to ask him questions about the role of the court in shaping our democracy.
GW President Thomas LeBlanc offered welcoming remarks, where he said the GW community was honored to host Justice Breyer on Constitution Day.
“We launched this series to provide more ways for you to hear from renowned leaders, the individuals whose illuminating dialogue and insight… inspire our GW community,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “Our Constitution and its interpretation by our justices has far-reaching implications. It affects us in big and small ways as individuals, as citizens of this nation and as citizens of the world.”
Justice Breyer encouraged students, faculty, staff and alumni not only to listen passively but also to work actively to create solutions as they gained new insights into the workings of the Constitution and Supreme Court.
Justice Breyer further noted that the Constitution “helps bring people together in the court and get our differences resolved, so of course it’s important.”
“When I talk to some students about [court] decisions they don’t like…I say turn on the television set and see how people in other countries decide their differences,” he said.
However, while noting that the Constitution provides fundamental rights and guarantees equal protection of those rights, Justice Breyer reminded his audience that the rule of law and courts, including the Supreme Court, actually play a limited role in helping people live in a democratic society.
“Don’t think that a few cases in the Supreme Court are going to be the things that really determine how you and your children and your families and everybody else live decent lives,” he said. “We’re interpreting federal law and the Constitution, and that is a small part of the legal system of the United States.”
The most important thing citizens can do, he urged, is to participate in public life.
“If you want to make a difference in criminal law or some other place, work in your own community,” he suggested. “It can be on the library board. It could be on a jury. It could be on the school board. There are a thousand ways of doing it. But do it.”
Justice Breyer further noted that, unlike other branches of government, the judicial branch cannot be swayed by political action but rather is required to make decisions using fairly settled legal principles.
He recalled how the Supreme Court was unable to immediately enforce its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, even if the segregated school were otherwise equal in quality.
In fact, he said, in the decade from the case’s end to the time he graduated law school in 1964, little had changed in terms of school systems moving to integrate their schools despite the court’s decision.
In 1958, then Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus closed all public high schools in Little Rock for a year rather than allow integration to continue despite President Dwight Eisenhower sending 1,000 U.S. Army troops from the 101st Airborne Division to the city to enforce the court’s orders to desegregate.
“So, what did it take— Martin Luther King, bus boycotts, Freedom Riders,” Justice Breyer said. “That was the period when the nation woke up. It’s not just up to the judges and lawyers. Contrary to your popular belief, we’ve got 330 million people and 329 million are not judges.”
As he sees it, the participation of citizens in a democracy will increase the chances of living in a fairer society.
“There has to be a movement,” he said. “It has to be history. Participate. Learn the [Constitution], get out there and convince people you’re right.”