• Justice Stephen Breyer Tells Students to Participate in Civic Life


The Honorable Stephen Breyer, US Supreme Court Justice, visited the College of Arts and Sciences on Tuesday, March 4, 2007 to speak to students, faculty and members of the Suffolk community.

Breyer, appointed to the US Supreme Court in 1994 by President Clinton, taught for many years as a professor at Harvard Law School and at the Kennedy School of Government. Breyer clerked for US Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, and served as an attorney in the antitrust division of the US Justice Department. He was an assistant Watergate special prosecutor, and chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 1980, he was appointed to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit by President Carter, and became chief judge in 1990.

Breyer began his address with a poem by Tom Wayman, "Did I Miss Anything," setting a humorous yet reflective tone for the event. He then spoke on "active liberty"--the participation of citizens in the democratic process--and the reasons behind writing his book, Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution (2005), which included showing students the connection between themselves and their government. "What's the most important thing we want to teach students?" he asked. "Democracy."

Breyer wants students to understand the role the Supreme Court plays in interpreting the Constitution, and he shares his own thought process when deciding difficult questions. "There really are two sides to things," he said. He gave the examples of campaign finance and affirmative action cases. "It helps to turn back to the basic purposes of the Constitution."

He describes these purposes in Active Liberty: “…the Constitution is not a document designed to solve the problems of the community at any level—local, state, or national. Rather it is a document that trusts people to solve those problems themselves. And it creates a framework for a government that will help them to do so. That framework foresees democratically determined solutions, protective of the individual’s basic liberties. It assures each individual that the law will treat him or her with equal respect. It seeks a form of democratic government that will prove workable over time.”

“We judges cannot insist that Americans participate in that government,” he writes. “But we can make clear that our Constitution depends on it.”

Breyer concluded by asking students, "What creates a satisfactory life?" He advised getting involved in the community, participating on any level of civic engagement, including politics, school boards and other organizations. "Unless most of you do something like that--participation--the document I work with every day just won't work."

Breyer's other books on administrative law, economic regulation and the Constitution include Breaking the Vicious Circle Toward Effective Risk Regulation (1995) and Celebrating the Courthouse: A Guide for Architects, Their Clients, and the Public (with Steven Flanders, 2006).

Breyer’s visit was the second in the spring line-up of Distinguished Visiting Scholars at the College of Arts & Sciences, a program launched in 2005 to bring nationally and internationally renowned scholars, artists, and intellectuals to the Boston campus for stays ranging from one week to a month.

Suffolk’s Distinguished Visiting Scholars contribute to the creative and intellectual vitality of the entire University by teaching courses, leading workshops and roundtables, and delivering public lectures. The scholars also have numerous informal opportunities to interact, consult, and collaborate with members of the Suffolk community during their residency.

You can see the broadcast here. In order to watch you will need a Real Player installed on your computer.


Additional information about the program, as well as the schedule of speakers for spring 2008, is available on our website. Click here to visit the Distinguished Visiting Scholars page. 



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