by Betsy Torg
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was in Philadelphia to address a sold-out crowd at the National Constitution Center this fall and, at his own request, paid a second visit to Springside School and Chestnut Hill Academy to speak with students.
The Justice first visited the school in January 2006 during a book tour for Active Liberty. This visit centered on his new book, “Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View,” which considers questions that are fundamental to our constitutional system and the future of the Supreme Court.
Breyer spoke at an assembly of upper school students from Springside and CHA, while younger students at both schools watched by live video stream in auditoriums and classrooms across the joint campus. Following an introduction by NBC 10 News anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, herself a former lawyer, Justice Breyer spoke to students eloquently and with humor about the job of Supreme Court Justice, the role of the constitution in setting boundaries, the difficult decisions made by the court over the course of our country’s history, and the importance of our participation in the democratic system.
Justice Breyer conveyed in a practical, easy-to-grasp way what it is that he actually does each day. With humor he described that he spends most of his time doing what students do: reading (the briefs written by lawyers about the cases before him) and writing (his opinions on cases).
He drove his point home with humor: “So I told my son, ‘If you do your homework really well, you can get a job where you do homework for the rest of your life!’”
Breyer went on to talk about the Constitution – pulling from his suit jacket a pocket-sized version of the document that he carries around with him daily as illustration – explaining that the Constitution creates institutions that allow us to govern democratically. He explained that it is a special kind of democracy that strives to do four things: protect human rights, promote equality, create a division of power, and insist on a rule of law.
He was again very pragmatic, explaining to students that the role of the Constitution is to set boundaries and that the role of the court is to apply those boundaries.
“This is not telling people how to do things, but this is setting boundaries, and we [the Supreme Court] are the boundary patrol, he said.” He went on to conjure up a radio character from the 1950s, Sky King, a Mountie in Canada who patrolled the Canadian Border.
“I have thought to myself this is what I do, I patrol the boundaries,” he added.
He then went on to discuss some of the landmark, controversial decisions by the Court in the history of the United States, ranging from the 1832 Supreme Court case Worcester v. Georgia to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka to the more recent 2000 Bush v. Gore decision.
The overriding message conveyed in his discussion of these cases was that oftentimes the Court has to make a ruling that is unpopular or controversial, and that it is the faith and respect of the American public for the system that keeps democracy in place and helps make it work.
Justice Breyer’s lasting message to students underscored the importance of their own participation in government in the future, be it on the school board, in local government, at the state level, or beyond.
“This document sets up a system for you to participate in the decisions of government,” Breyer said. He went on to say that while everyone intends to participate, oftentimes life gets in the way and Americans get busy with family, jobs, simply putting meals on the table.
“Life is a lot to do and so remembering to stay involved in the community is much harder to remember,” he said.
His message was not lost on the students.
“The opportunity that CHA and Springside gave us to see a Supreme Court Justice, not once but twice, is something that not many high school students can say that they have been exposed to,” said Springside’s student government head, senior Amanda Culp.
“I think that the message he emphasized about getting involved in our government especially struck me and the other seniors who are 18, since this upcoming election will be our first opportunity to vote,” she said.
“Being able to speak with Justice Breyer in an intimate setting allowed me to realize how easy it is for us to influence the decisions made by politicians through our political participation,” echoed Springside senior Sofia Norten.
“I want you to see that this document won’t work unless you and others participate in the government it creates,” Breyer told students as he concluded the assembly.
“To do that, it’s helpful to know a little bit about the history and about the nature of institutions, including the courts, that we’ve created over time, to make up that government, he said.” I hope you will participate and learn about the government of the Unites States, including the courts.”
Betsy Torg works part-time at Springside School as Media Relations Coordinator.