February 7, 2023

Instead, the 83-year-old retired judge spoke extensively about the rule of law and emphasized that he remains generally optimistic.

“I think over long periods of time we have in America a system that has been modified – with its flaws and its wrong way from time to time,” he said.

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“But overall, I’m still optimistic,” Breyer added.

Breyer did not mention the series of losses that liberals suffered at the end of the last period in terms of abortion, gun rights, the environment and religious freedom. Instead, addressing an audience of lawyers attending the American Bar Association conference in Chicago, he reiterated tensions from earlier speeches and told the audience that the work of the American Bar Association and lawyers in general was important.

He said judges “need help from outside,” even if they think they don’t.

Breyer repeated a story about the assurances he made to a judge who visited him from a foreign country several years ago about the rule of law. He said he told her about Bush v. Gore – the controversial Supreme Court decision that decided the 2000 presidential election – and how then-Democratic Senator Harry Reid once asserted that after the opinion was issued, there were no riots in the streets.
“What Reed said, is that you probably know you have the rule of law ‘when enough people are willing to accept an opinion that affects them personally that they don’t like,'” Breyer recounted. (Bryer did not mention recent events including the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack.) .

“This was not a country full of problems that you know,” Breyer told the visiting judge.

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“There was a civil war, there was slavery, 80 years of segregation in Jim Crow,” Breyer said in a broad talk. “But we’re gradually trying… If this generation doesn’t do it, the next generation might.”

Breyer started his talk with a joke after he was praised for writing more than 500 opinions from the bench. “I have one question about your introduction,” he said. “I said I wrote 525 reviews – but why is the world in such a mess?” He said to laugh.

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