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
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,
age 12, captured quite propitiously the exact moment of our friendly
The scenery surrounding us is the entry hall and reception area of
Clinton School of Public Service which is adjacent to the
Clinton Presidential Library. Notice how Vivian and I stand out
in the crowd <grin>.
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
"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
"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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Little Rock skyline at sunset, view from the Great
Hall on the upper floor of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little
Justice Breyer received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his
(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?" ~~~