Supreme Court Lessons: Justice Stephen Breyer on American Democracy

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Stephen Breyer, Supreme Court Justice and author of Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View, offered his view of interpreting the Constitution.

It's rare for a Supreme Court Justice to give media interviews, and even more rare for them to take phone calls from listeners on a live radio program. As such, The Brian Lehrer Show devoted 35 minutes to Justice Stephen Breyer this morning, during which he gave history lessons on the enforcement of Supreme Court decisions, reflected on those decisions in which he dissented, and stressed the importance of teaching the Constitution. We did the Bites a little differently this time, and this by no means covers everything Justice Breyer and Brian Lehrer discussed. We at It's a Free Country highly recommend listening to the complete interview.

On why we obey the Supreme Court's rulings

[The Supreme Court has no constitutional authority to enforce its decisions, so why do we listen to it? President Andrew Jackson, upon learning that the Court had decided against the state of Georgia and in favor of the Cherokee tribe in Worcester v. Georgia, famously said, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!"]

When [North Carolina and some other states] looked and saw that Georgia wasn't following the Court and [Andrew Jackson] was saying that was all fine, they said, 'Well hey, we have a good idea. If Georgia doesn't follow the Court, why should we? Why should we pay taxes? Why should we pay customs?' And at that point Jackson realized the union was threatened, and he changed his mind.

On a silver lining to Bush v. Gore

[Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] said the most remarkable part of that decision is very rarely remarked: Despite its unpopularity, despite all that, [the people] did follow it. They did not throw sticks or rocks in the street, they did not shoot themselves, they did not have riots where people died. And that is a treasure for this country.

On politics in the Court

[In response to a caller's question about having liberal and conservative Justices, and how much personal politics affected Court decisions.]

It is legal in nature, interpreting this document. The law is not a computer, it doesn't spew out answers like a computer. Humanity and human beings are involved, both as consequences and as judges. It's hard, and it often requires the use of values, and human values. So we sometimes come to different answers, but 'political' is the wrong word to describe it.

On why he wrote this book

We're living in a period where people are pretty cynical about the government...If too much cynicism goes on, this democracy won't work and the rights that are in that document won't be guaranteed....Please, teach civics in the high schools. Try to explain to the students what kind of Constitution they have: What it says, how it's enforced, how they can participate in their government. That's what this is about.