Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer Launches GW Law Conversation Series

The justice and his brother, federal Judge Charles Breyer, recalled their boyhood and offered advice in a talk filled with warmth and wisdom.

April 2, 2023

From left, moderator Alan B. Morrison, Justice Stephen Breyer, and Judge Charles R. Breyer

From left, Alan B. Morrison, Justice Stephen Breyer and Judge Charles R. Breyer held a wide-ranging conversation. (William Atkins/GW Today)

The first of five conversations intended as an oral history of the life and career of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was held Wednesday on the campus of George Washington University, where Breyer and his brother described their San Francisco beginnings and offered wisdom on life, career and politics.

The first installment in the series in Lisner Auditorium focused primarily on the boyhood and youth of Justice Breyer and his brother, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer, a senior jurist in the Northern District of California. The genial conversation was moderated by Alan B. Morrison, the Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest and Public Service Law.

GW Law Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew introduced the panelists and moderator, mentioning the esteem in which Justice Breyer is held as a “consensus-building institutionalist and a rationalist,” and describing Morrison as “a good friend of Justice Breyer’s for more than 40 years.”

Morrison began the conversation by asking the justice and his brother to describe the neighborhood where they grew up. They remembered it as a cosmopolitan place and praised their civic-minded parents for helping them appreciate the role they could play in public life.

Their father was the attorney for the Board of Education in San Francisco for 41 years, and their mother was interested in organizations such as the League of Women Voters and the PTA. Justice Breyer noted that the newest justice on the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson, who filled his seat on the bench and had worked for him as a clerk, also had a father who worked as the chief attorney for the Miami-Dade County School Board.

Judge Breyer, the younger sibling, said he had been invited to the conversation to “provide some truth and a little comic relief.” The justice, older by three years, remembered sharing a bedroom with him, saying his brother would throw toys out of his crib and then scream for their mother to say that his big brother was keeping him awake.

“That was difficult,” Justice Breyer said, “but nonetheless, we survived.”

The justice, who was born in 1938, remembered his parents’ disapproval of the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II. As an aside, he said even then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover did not support the mass imprisonment of Japanese-American citizens.

Judge Breyer remembered their father taking him along when he voted, lifting him up to the voting machine and telling him which levers to pull. He remembered being instructed to vote "yes" on several issues, and when he asked his father why, the answer was: “Because there are people out there that will vote no.”

“It was a lesson to me in affirming government,” Judge Breyer said. “The government does have a good purpose, and it’s got to be allowed to do things.”

Both brothers remembered their childhood fondly, with Justice Breyer saying San Francisco’s diversity gave him an appreciation for people from whom he differed.

“It was not conceivable to me that you could live your life without being a part of several communities that are trying to live together in a reasonable way,” Justice Breyer said.

Justice Breyer speaks with students at a reception

At a post-conversation reception, Justice Breyer talked with members of the audience. (William Atkins/GW Today)

In a bit of brotherly ribbing, Judge Breyer responded to complaints about his throwing toys and looking “terrible” by revealing what irked him about his big brother.

“What annoyed me about my brother,” Judge Breyer said, “was that he never found me (and this continues to this day) as funny as I thought I was.”

Judge Breyer shared an incident in which his brother, in possession of a driver’s learning permit, nearly took the family over a cliff. Asked to explain what had happened, the future Supreme Court justice said he had been thinking.

“That’s what happens with my brother,” Judge Breyer said. “I warn all of his law clerks, if they see that my brother is thinking, to be very careful.”

Both brothers served in the U.S. Army Reserve, an experience Justice Breyer said he valued because it exposed him to people he would otherwise never have met, sounding again the optimistic note heard throughout their conversation—that America’s diversity is a source of its strength.

Gratitude was also a recurrent theme in their talk. Justice Breyer recalled traveling in Europe, which broadened his mind, and seeing memorials to young Americans killed in World War II. “These people had no life so that I could have a nice life,” he said.

A note of humility also emerged. Justice Breyer emphasized how important it is to speak with people who have a different point of view. Though you can’t abandon your principles, he said, you may be surprised to discover points of agreement.

Discussing his appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Breyer said that there are probably many people who could fill a given vacancy.

“Being appointed a federal judge is like lightning striking,” he said, “and being appointed to the Supreme Court is like lightning striking twice.”

The brothers bemoaned the extreme political polarization and lack of civic education in America today, when more and more citizens do not understand how their government works.

On the art of compromise, Justice Breyer shared some advice he said he often heard from Senator Ted Kennedy, the late Massachusetts Democrat for whom the justice once worked. “Getting 20% of what you wanted is better than getting 100% of nothing.”

In response to a question from the audience, Judge Breyer said, “If you want to be a judge, make it known.”

Responding to other career-minded students, Justice Breyer struck a sage note by acknowledging the role of contingency in forging the path of a given life, counseling them to choose wisely from available options in any circumstance.

“Your life will fold itself around your choices,” Justice Breyer said.

Future conversations in the series will be hosted by a moderator who will interview Justice Breyer about the phases of his life. On May 16, Matthew will moderate the second installment focusing on Justice Breyer’s memories of Harvard Law School (both as a student and teacher), on his time as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and his subsequent work assisting the U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust.

Topics of future conversations, with dates to be announced, include Justice Breyer’s time working for Ted Kennedy, his work as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and his years on the Supreme Court of the United States.