Supreme Court’s Stephen Breyer still ‘optimistic’ after abortion

Retired Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer – who quit the High Court days after the ruling that ended abortion protections – told a crowd of lawyers in Chicago on Saturday night that he remained hopeful about the American legal system.

“Over long periods of time, we’ve had an America, a system that has adjusted, with its downsides, with its misdirection from time to time…but overall, I’m still optimistic,” Breyer said. , who disagreed with the abortion decision.

Featured as one of his first speeches since retiring in June, Breyer quipped, “Why is the world in such a mess?” — a line that got a lot of laughs at the American Bar Association event — after he was reminded that he had written 525 legal opinions.

Breyer, 83, has not spoken directly about the abortion ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, nor other controversial rulings the High Court has handed down this spring with its sharp shift to the right in recent years.

But – in a nod to the pragmatism for which he is known – he spoke broadly about the importance for lawyers and law professors to analyze court decisions, so that when issues come before judges , they “have a much better idea of ​​who they are”. have done. And they can adapt accordingly.

Over time, he said, “you have a growing body of doctrine … which we hope, as Martin Luther King (said), is moving toward justice. This n “It’s not always the case, but we hope. And those parts of the profession that work together, I think, generally go in that direction, at least occasionally and not always.”

Breyer also noted, “This is not a land of pure highs. I mean, there was a civil war. There have been 200 years of slavery, if not more, and 80 years of Jim Crow segregation in this country.

Breyer joined Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan on the dissenting side of the June ruling that ended constitutional protections for abortion — a stunning reversal of a half-century-old legal norm that rocked the nation, even though a project had already emerged publicly in an unprecedented leak.

“With sadness – to this Court, but more so, to the millions of American women who today have lost fundamental constitutional protection – we disagree,” they wrote.

Afternoon briefing


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Breyer’s retirement took effect June 30, just days after the abortion ruling was announced. The outgoing judge was sworn in to his successor, federal appeals court judge Katanji Brown Jackson, a candidate for President Joe Biden.

Breyer, appointed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1994, spent nearly 28 years on the court in the court’s liberal wing, though he bristled at such labels. One of his most referenced opinions dates back to 2015, when the majority of the court upheld lethal injection. Breyer dissented and questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty.

“For 28 years, when I have sat on this ground, I see before me people of all races, all religions and all possible points of view,” he said on Saturday.

The same week as the abortion ruling in late June, the Supreme Court also expanded gun rights, striking down a New York law that required people to demonstrate the need to carry a concealed weapon. Breyer again dissented, writing that there had been 277 mass shootings reported to date and said his fellow majority justices had acted “disregarding the potentially life-threatening consequences.” He said the ruling would make it harder for states to pass laws restricting the sale and use of firearms.

Breyer was the lead author of Supreme Court opinions that upheld reproductive rights in 2000 and 2016, acknowledging in the earlier that the opinions of those who view abortion as murder and those who hold that it is legal are “virtually irreconcilable”. But said the High Court ‘has determined and then re-determined that the Constitution provides basic protection for a woman’s right to choose’.

On Saturday, Breyer received the ABA Medal, the Chicago Bar’s highest honor given to judges and attorneys. Several Supreme Court Justices have received this honor, including Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1931, Thurgood Marshall in 1992 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2010.

Associated Press contributed.

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