Democracy works in the United States, according to Associate Justice Stephen Breyer of the Supreme Court, because the people have decided to follow the Constitution and rule of law.
“It’s democracy that protects basic human rights, assures a certain degree of equality, divides power and insists upon a rule of law,” Breyer said.
Breyer spoke last Thursday at Gusman Hall as a part of the Robert B. Cole lecture series that began in 1985. The event was unpublicized and only offered by invitation.
One of his central points during Thursday’s event was the role of the high court as outlined by the Constitution.
“We don’t have to take a case,” he said. He added that, though roughly 8,000 cases are brought before the Court each year, only about 80 are heard.
“Much of our job is to decide questions of law-those questions where there is a needed uniform, national interpretation,” he said.
Most of the cases the Court hears, according to Breyer, deal with the constitutionality of state law or inconsistencies between the rulings of various district courts.
“We patrol the boundaries,” he said. “There are difficult decisions on the boundaries. The question we will be asked is not, ‘Is this good policy or bad policy?’ but ‘Does it fall off the rail?'”
Protecting the American democratic system is not only the government’s job, but also relies upon citizens to participate, he explained to the audience of law school alumni, students and faculty.
“I thought the actual discussion was excellent,” John McLuskey, a law school graduate, class of 1981, said. “Justice Breyer really showed himself as a real person, somebody who could be trusted with the Constitution, somebody who really understands the rule of law and how it works.
“I think we all came away feeling as though we were in the presence of someone who really knows the Constitution. I really enjoyed it; I thought it was an excellent presentation,” he said.
Federal and state judges also attended the event.
“I liked the fact that he wanted to make sure everybody know he was a simple human being trying to do a good job,” Senior U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter R. Palermo, of the Southern District of Florida, said. “And he can laugh at himself. If anybody can’t laugh at themselves it’s dangerous. He knows why he’s there and he assumed the responsibility. I’m proud to have him.”
Sergei Kotelnikov, a law student, also was pleased with the manner in which Breyer spoke.
“I thought he took a very unusual approach to produce a first impression on us,” Kotelnikov said. “A judge of that caliber coming to the University of Miami, in itself, is a huge event for the community and the attendance clearly demonstrated that.
“The fact that he approached it in more of a casual manner, so as to not to intimidate or produce the effect of: ‘I’m a big judge coming to a small school, or to a school that is not Harvard or Yale’ shows a good-faith attitude towards these kinds of programs and visits.”
According to Dennis O. Lynch, dean of the School of Law, students from constitutional law classes were randomly selected to attend a class taught by Breyer last Friday.
“It’s a great experience for students to have an open dialogue with a Supreme Court Justice,” Lynch said. “I thought it was a great exchange.”
Greg Linch can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.