Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer made a rare stop at "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" on Monday to promote his new book, but instead the host got him to talk shop about a range of other things.
“Normally Breyer sits next to Clarence Thomas, so I hope he’s not startled when I actually talk,” Colbert warned the audience during his opening monologue.
Colbert only made a passing mention of Breyer’s book, The Court and the World, and focused the rest of his time with the justice on the court -- including disagreements among the justices and lifetime appointments to the bench.
On that last point, Breyer said he was reminded of his father.
“My father’s favorite advice to me: Stay on the payroll,” Breyer said to laughs from the audience.
Before the actual sitdown with Breyer, Colbert warmed the crowd to his visit with a few one-liners about the Clinton nominee and recent legal happenings involving the justices.
“Their decisions cannot be overturned, even by the president. The only person with more power is a Kentucky county clerk,” Colbert said, a reference to Kim Davis, the renegade clerk who was jailed for contempt after she refused to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage.
During the interview, Colbert brought up the evergreen subject of cameras inside the Supreme Court, which the justices are often asked about, but framed the question in terms of mass surveillance of Americans.
“Why can’t we watch you if the Supreme Court repeatedly rules that we can be watched by the government?” he asked.
Breyer acknowledged there are “good arguments” in favor of cameras and that “human beings, correctly and decently, relate to people they see.” But he said the public might misapprehend the court’s work by watching the justices at oral arguments, which only reflects a small portion of what they do.
“Will they understand the whole story? Will they understand what we’re doing? Will there be distortion? That’s the arguments against you,” Breyer said. “The argument for you is that it’s a fabulous educational process.”
To which Colbert came back with, “And pretty entertaining sometimes.”
Breyer quickly shot back, “No,” which also drew laughs.
The more thoughtful part of the exchange came when Colbert wondered how the Supreme Court managed to keep functioning despite internal differences, while the rest of the government seemingly can’t.
“When we’re sitting around that table, I have never heard a voice raised in anger,” said Breyer, referring to the justices’ private conferences, where they cast votes on pending cases. “I have never heard one member of our court saying something insulting about another, not even as a joke.”
Breyer later continued, “Of course we disagree. We disagree about half the time. We’re unanimous about half the time. And we feel it possibly quite strongly. But the discussion is professional. It is serious. It is not personal. And we are good friends despite that we agree some of the time and we disagree others of the time.”
As if sensing Breyer’s institutional passion, Colbert replied, “You’re yelling at me right now.”