According to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, the Constitution has five core values, and the key to preserving those values lies in being aware of what is going on in the rest of the world.
Breyer addressed around 300 people at the Yale Law School yesterday afternoon in the Levinson Auditorium, in conversation with Yale President Peter Salovey and Yale Corporation Senior Fellow Margaret Marshall, who also formerly served as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Breyer stressed the importance of understanding the American Constitution. While the vast majority of American law is made in the states, he said, the Constitution focuses on the core principles of the country — democracy, human rights, equality, separation of powers and the rule of law. The entire Supreme Court can agree on those five principles, he said.
When Salovey asked him what makes the Constitution distinctly American, Breyer reflected on the fact that Americans historically chose to empower a central authority.
“It is a charter of power decreed by liberty, not a charter of liberty decreed by power,” he explained. “Rather than tell people what to do, the Constitution sets limits on what the government can do.”
Marshall joked that what most of the students in the audience probably wanted to know was how to become a Supreme Court justice. She recognized Breyer for his devotion to public service and his love for teaching as characteristics that helped lead him to the Supreme Court.
Salovey asked Marshall and Breyer whether American justices should consider rulings from other countries when coming to conclusions.
Marshall answered that current generations tend to think globally rather than nationally. To Breyer, looking at what judges in other countries decide is useful — and this tactic, he said, does not strip America of its uniqueness.
“The only way to preserve our American values, which are now widely shared, is to know more — not less — about what is going on abroad,” he remarked.
Marshall recalled a specific case she had dealt with, in which questions were raised around the conditions under which materials from sperm banks could be used. Her team found that no American court had ever faced a similar issue, but a court in a different country had. While that court’s decision did not serve as precedent, it was helpful, she said.
Students and faculty alike expressed enthusiasm about Breyer’s talk.
“I have an obsession with the Supreme Court — I love Justice Breyer and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say,” said Victoria Hall-Palerm ’15, a staff columnist for the News, moments before the talk started.
At the end of the talk, some students spoke individually with Breyer, shaking his hand and asking for pictures. Many thanked him for his candor.
“I enjoyed hearing his insights on the Constitution and I was pleasantly surprised by how jovial and engaged he was. It seemed like he really liked talking to us,” said Lauren Young GRD ’15. “It was nice to see that he wanted to share his knowledge.”
Michael Herbert ’16, president of the Yale College Council, said he appreciated Breyer’s suggestion that all students carry a copy of the Constitution with them.
Herbert remarked that he will purchase a Constitution for his pocket.
“I do have one in my backpack, but clearly it is time for me to step it up a notch,” he said.
Breyer was appointed to the Supreme Court by former U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1994. He is considered to be one of the Court’s more liberal members.