Before a nearly full auditorium at the Yale Law School on Wednesday, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Stephen Breyer asked for a moment of silence for his late colleague, Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly on Saturday.
Breyer’s talk was rife with anecdotes about his own education and career, as well as Amazon promotions for his first book, “Regulation and Its Reform,” which the Justice likened to David Hume’s “History of England” in its dryness. It was, for the most part, a conversation about his most recent book, “The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities,” which explores the interdependence between the American judicial system and international law, and stresses the importance of taking into consideration how other nations handle judicial questions in an increasingly globalized world. The number of Supreme Court cases that require a global understanding is increasing, he said. But he stressed that taking international law into account should not be seen as a threat to American law.
“I persuade them so beautifully, but they don’t want to be persuaded,” Breyer said of his critics, adding that they maintain that any international influence on the Supreme Court and the judicial system as a whole threatens to distort the application of the American Constitution and “[waters] down our values.” Yet, in a world where laws are increasingly crossing national boundaries and judicial limitations are not as clear-cut as a state’s border, Breyer argued that the interdependence and comparative law will “go on anyway — we just won’t be there.”
Breyer challenged attendees to adopt different mindsets on issues currently facing the Supreme Court, many of which can be informed by decisions already made in foreign courts. He emphasized that he wants to make sure the U.S. participates in the inevitable globalization of legal and judicial thought.
Breyer was joined by Ahoran Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel, who spoke mainly about Breyer’s most recent book. Barak said the points made in the book were already clear to him because his career has often forced him to consider the implications of other nations’ laws in Israel. A judge in Israel, he said, would not even consider writing such a book because its thesis is already such a part of Israeli legal culture.
“You are an optimist,” Barak said to Breyer. “If I am a short-distance runner, you are a long-distance runner — or maybe, a Don Quixote.”
Barak added that comparative law is discounted in the American judicial system because students do not learn about it in law school because their professors did not learn it. Moreover, the Supreme Court does not often cite comparative law. He said Breyer wants to establish a system in which international and foreign law is not seen as a threat to the United States’ judicial system.
Attendees interviewed appreciated Breyer’s fresh perspective on the Supreme Court and America’s judicial system.
David Stevens ’19 said it is important for the U.S. to remember that it is not an island, adding that it is important for the country to learn from legal precedents established in foreign courts.
Robert Post, dean of Yale Law School, said he was “honored” to have Breyer “class up this joint,” despite the Justice’s ties to Harvard Law School.
Breyer was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1994.