The Supremacy of Law: Justice Stephen Breyer at Sun Valley Writers' Conference

A lot of important and talented people touched down in Sun Valley, Idaho, this summer, but only one had the term "Supreme" on his business card.
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A lot of important and talented people touched down in Sun Valley, Idaho, this summer (see: Allen & Co.), but only one had the term "Supreme" on his business card.

In a sold out lecture at the Sun Valley Writer's Conference, Justice Stephen Breyer spent most of his time answering a simple question: What, exactly, does a Supreme Court justice do?

When his son Michael was in school, Breyer told him, "If you do your homework really well, you can get a job where you can do homework for the rest of your life." That's essentially what he does in Washinton, D.C., Breyer said. "Basically, I read and I write."

From Supreme Court 101, Breyer moved onto an explanation of the court's duties, essentially an homage to the elegance and the genius of our Constitution -- that document that "constitutes" our democratic government, as he put it. As part of the Sun Valley Writers' Conference, it was also his chance to plug his book: Making Our Democracy Work.

But while the Constitution might be elegant, its enforcement can get pretty messy. Breyer told the story of Cooper v. Aaron, one of his favorite Supreme Court cases. In 1958, four years after the landmark Brown v. Board decision to integrate public schools, many Southern schools remained segregated. Cooper v. Aaron unanimously reinforced the decision to desegregate.

The tale Breyer spun over Cooper v. Aaron was rich with drama, suspense and storybook characters. Then Arkansans Governor Orval Faubus defied federal law and sent in a militia to block nine black students -- the Little Rock Nine -- from entering Central High School. A furious President Eisenhower summoned the rebel Faubus to the presidential summer home in Newport, RI, and the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe dressed the governor down, "like a general tells a lieutenant," Faubus later recalled. But once he traveled back to Arkansas, Faubus remained defiant.

At this pivotal moment, faced with allowing the South to rise again or to flex his federal muscle, Eisenhower went full general. He called out Faubus on national television -- "...Federal law... cannot be flouted with impunity by any individual or any mob of extremists" -- and sent in the 101st Airborne, heroes of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, to enforce the ruling. The Little Rock Nine went to school on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 1958, and the rest is civil rights history.

Breyer pivoted from Cooper v. Aaron, a case that was an easy ruling but tough to enforce, to the opposite drama of Bush v. Gore, a difficult decision (five to four for Bush) that was nonetheless immediately and universally accepted as law.

Think about it, Breyer said: Al Gore won the popular vote nationwide, but lost in Florida by just 2,000 votes. When Gore sought a recount and the Florida Supreme Court obliged, the Bush team sued. The case reached Breyer's desk, and we all know what happened next.

"What was remarkable about it," Breyer said, "is that even though vast numbers of Americans thought it was wrong," and even though he himself thought it was wrong, "people followed it." "In other places, there would have been guns and bullets. The fact that no blood was shed after Bush v. Gore," Breyer said, "is what makes America great."

After Bush v. Gore, countless Americans felt disenfranchised. Others said that the Supreme Court failed to represent the nation's democratic majority. But no one argued against the efficacy of the Court's ruling.

"It might sound like a Fourth of July speech, but it's a part of my life," Breyer said to a closing standing ovation.

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