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Juistice Stephen Breyer: "What's the alternative?"
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The one point Justice Stephen Breyer, sitting jurist of the United States Supreme Court, made redundantly clear during the open forum held in the Great Hall of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, on March 7, 2006, was that for the democratic principles codified by the U.S. Constitution to ‘work’ citizens must be ‘involved.’ And I’m getting ahead of myself.

>> At right: Justice Stephen Breyer spoke at length about the unique role of the Supreme Court in our American system of jurisprudence.

By rights, I have to start with thanks to a friend, Vivian Flowers -- that’s the two of us hugging in the pic below. The other day, Vivian sent ‘round a note to several of us civic activist types, informing about this impending gathering. She and I became acquainted several years ago by virtue of email networking like this and have exchanged many emails since but had never met ‘in the flesh’ until this event. The photo, taken by Gozarks apprentice photographer, Shawna, age 12, captured quite propitiously the exact moment of our friendly greeting.

The scenery surrounding us is the entry hall and reception area of the Clinton School of Public Service which is adjacent to the Clinton Presidential Library. Notice how Vivian and I stand out in the crowd <grin>.

Prior to this convivial social gathering, Justice Breyer held a press conference. Sequestered in a comfortably formal private study-like meeting room adjacent to the hall shown above, members of the media sat at a long mahogany board room table. Ensconced by a wall of books and an overstuffed mahogany leather sofa, the Justice presided over questions about the general nature of his work with the court.

>> At right: Christine Beems, Editor, Gozarks.com, and Justice Stephen Breyer.

"I love being a judge," Justice Breyer, a genial man with a pleasantly twisted sense of humor, spoke with the slow cadence practiced by those who routinely measure the weight of words. "Every judge, at whatever level, is concerned with the difficult problem affecting at least the human beings in front of him."

Breyer, a native of San Francisco born in 1938, was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in 1980 by President Carter and confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1994 by President Clinton. A graduate of Stanford, Oxford, and Harvard Law School where he was subsequently a professor for many years, Breyer's lifetime legal career includes a stint as a Supreme Court law clerk for Justice Arthur Goldberg, a professorship at the Kennedy School of Government, service as respectively a Justice Department lawyer with the antitrust division, an Assistant Watergate Special Prosecutor and Chief Counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee in addition to his authorship of numerous books and articles about administrative law, economic regulation and the Constitution.

Amidst this setting, I posed the question: "Justice Breyer," I introduced myself, "I get hundreds of emails from people who are concerned that the Constitution is not being upheld by their own government. What should I tell these folks?"

"Of course, they are worried about a difficult problem of security and civil liberties and all of those arguments," the Justice responded. "The government is three branches, and some of those cases eventually come to us. Some have. And the way that the government of the United States works is where we have a very general and very important and very difficult problem there are a lot of people involved in the decisions. A lot. Congress is involved. The Executive [branch] is involved. Sometimes the Courts are involved. And sometimes there is tremendous hostility and people are tremendously divided, and I may be the only one in the United States who thinks this, but sometimes I think good. And why do I think 'good'? Because we are in a democratic system where disagreement is in a sense the norm. And out of those disagreements come discussions. And out of the discussion comes compromise. And before you know it you have people working out what the policy ought to be in a cooperative vein, even though it sounds very hostile.

"Go back to 1840 and read about 'the clamor' of everybody in the United States arguing with each other about politics. And you can say they should be more civil -- and they should be more civil. But still the argument itself is part of the government that we're involved in. That's how we make some types of progress. We see the Ship of State going here, or there, or the other place and eventually we hope this system leads to what I call a reasonably solid track."

The University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service

The media briefing adjourned to a casual reception festooned with an array of gourmet munchies that would set the sensory receptors of any gastronomical aficionado to delight. Replete with al dente spears of asparagus, precision sautéed mushroom caps, almond and fudge petit fours, succulent medallions of roast pork, braised strips of chicken breast and miniature yeast rolls accompanied by sauces and spreads sufficient to tantalize the most sophisticated taste-buds.

Those gathered for the event were -- to the trained eye of this seasoned journalist who has covered more of these things than warrants repeating -- surprisingly companionable. Most, we note, work together (more or less) within the legal systems of our state. Some were judges, some professors, some attorneys, some students of the law.

Others were affiliated with the Clinton Library or School of Public Service. Also there were a fair number of FBI men... though I confess that the FBI credit is a presumption on my part as I did not ascertain this for a fact. I can say with confidence however that there were a number of dark-suited men stationed at sufficient places around the room that one was aware of their presence most by distinction of their reserved and alert silence in contrast to the comfortable, relaxed, and chatty feeling that permeated the room. 

After a while, we adjourned to the Great Hall of the Clinton Presidential Library and I must say that my one-word description of a 'first impression' of this structure is 'austere.' Though I'm sure the architects and designers and those who approved the plans think of it more in terms of 'bold' and 'monolithic.' Solid and uniform. An iconoclast, perhaps, so completely devoid of obviously superimposed symbolism that the whole of it becomes an icon unto itself.

The Clinton Presidential Library

Inside the facility (an annoying word which Roger Smith, editor of the Van Buren County Democrat, recently pointed out is not really, by terms of actual definition, a proper term to use to describe any type of building), I was again somewhat taken aback by (what I would call) the sterile ambiance. All glass and massive I-beams, stainless steel and chrome, sleek technology installations of audio-video didactics and to be perfectly honest, my first thought was that if I were President, I wouldn't want my library to look like this.

But then we all know what a braggart I am.

After passing through the security check-point, which included one of those airport-style handbag scanners and a walk-through metal detector, we were seated to the left of the stage (stage right to the folks who were speaking) in the front row of many chairs which semi-circled the dais. Immersed in dusky teal blue, gun-metal gray, off-white on off-white and dark-rusty brown ceilings, walls and furnishings, the pale gold of the lustrously shiny wood floor made for a pleasant contrast. The ceiling fixtures reminded Shawna of inverted white artichokes with square petals.

Justice Breyer was introduced among humorous quips as "one of nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court, a thinker and a true leader in helping shape the court's current philosophy."  

As the Justice spoke about his and the Court's approach to matters of law, regarding specifically those involving the Constitution which, he said, is upwards of 80% of what all Supreme Court cases are about, I got the sense that this is an intelligent man who does indeed care about the quality of his own work and the effect it has on the shape of the legal system.

He said that for the most part, the work of the Supreme Court takes place 'at the fringes' deciding what is within the elusive boundary of personal/civil liberty and what is not. He cited as example a challenge to Affirmative Action Policies wherein the Court was called to decide if such policies were permissible in accord of the 'equal treatment under the law' codicil of democratic governance, saying that in this instance the court decided that this type of self-inflicted discrimination was permissible in a limited sense.

Using the concept of 'liberty' as another illustration, he explained that as a Justice he draws on many sources to reason his way through a gnarly problem, but that at baseline it all comes down to looking at the rudimentary definition of words as determined by their application in terms.

In response to a query from the floor asking what could be done to quicken the judicial administration process, noting that many people consider 'justice delayed' to be the same thing as 'justice denied,' Breyer elaborated on the workings of an innovative court system in India wherein people with disputes, disagreements and common legal conundrums were seen by a panel of three 'judges' -- one of whom was a law judge, while the other two were a social worker and a psychologist.

Upon entering the courtroom, none of the parties involved were accused of committing a crime nor were any identified as plaintiff or defendant. Instead the simple blunt question was posed: "What is the problem?" And from that point forward, everyone worked to find a mutually acceptable solution. Breyer again asserted that the innovation of workable alternatives to the status quo are 'in the hands of the people.'

I connected with what he was saying and in many ways agreed, finding his dissertation on the tenets of Constitutional government in a democratic republic pure of heart and reverent in the most altruistic sense.

A gentleman of poise, the decorum of his office prohibits his publicly speaking from an activists side of mind and as Judges are supposed to be 'above it all' this is we suppose -- and as he affirmed about disagreement -- a  good thing.

Still, couched in the dulcet tones of mainstream mannerism and effervescent with cheerful humor, punctuated with outbursts of both laughter and applause, Justice Breyer made a couple of emphatic points rather brilliantly and reasserted same redundantly if subtly, over and over again.

Little Rock skyline at sunset, view from the Great Hall on the upper floor of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.

Justice Breyer received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his presentation.
(Note: that's my friend Vivian right there in the front row!)

First, if you don't know what the 'bad' folks are up to, they're not gonna tell you. You've gotta dig into things and discover the truth for yourself. And finally, as he summarized in response to the follow-up question I posed just after Shawna snapped the pic of me and him (near the top of this page), "Tell them to get out there and participate," he said. "Tell them they've got to persuade other people. And they will say, I can't persuade other people. And then you say to them What's the alternative?" ~~~


That you may be filled with strength and power, rooted and grounded in love that surpasses all knowledge: Be kind to one another; live with compassion, producing every kind of goodness; stand firm and hold your ground in truth, righteousness and peace; be courageous; embrace faith which is perfect trust in justice. ~Ephesians 3-6 (condensed)