U.S. Justice Breyer touts compromise, democracy, adherence to precedent

FILE PHOTO: Group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) - Justice Stephen Breyer on Friday spoke of the need for the U.S. Supreme Court to respect its own precedents, talked up democracy and touted bipartisan collaboration in Congress as he addressed school students amid speculation about his possible retirement.

Breyer, at 82 the nine-member court's oldest justice, has faced calls from some liberal activists to step down to enable President Joe Biden to appoint a younger liberal jurist to a lifetime post on the nation's top judicial body.

Asked by an event moderator about the value of the court adhering to its past rulings, Breyer said it should overturn a precedent only in the "rare case where it's really necessary." Breyer said law is about stability, which allows people to plan their lives.


"The law might not be perfect but if you're changing it all the time people won't know what to do, and the more you change it the more people will ask to have it changed, and the more the court hears that, the more they'll change it," Breyer added.

The question was posed less than two weeks after the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, agreed to hear a major challenge to abortion rights, one that could gut the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized the procedure nationwide.

Breyer's colleague, Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, in 2019 urged the court to feel less bound to upholding precedent. Thomas in past rulings has backed abortion restrictions.

The upcoming abortion case, which the justices will hear in their next term that begins in October, involves Mississippi's bid to revive a Republican-backed state law that bans the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Breyer spoke to middle and high school students in an online class organized by the Philadelphia-based National Constitution Center, a nonprofit institution. Breyer urged them to put the "unfortunate things" unfolding in the United States in historical context.

"It's happened before," Breyer said. "This is not the first time that people have become discouraged with the democratic process. This is not the first time that we've had real racism in this country. It used to be slavery before that."

His comments came on the same day that U.S. Senate Republicans derailed a proposed bipartisan inquiry into the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol by former President Donald Trump's supporters that interrupted the formal congressional certification of Biden's election victory. Trump has made false claims that the election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud.

Questioned about U.S. political fractures and deepening polarization, Breyer said he remains "basically optimistic." For all of its flaws, Breyer said, American democracy is, on balance, "better than the alternatives."

He also spoke of the value of legislative teamwork at a time of deep differences between Democrats and Republicans.

Breyer, who earlier in his career worked as a staff member in the Senate, said, "You need that Republican's support? Talk to them. ... You say, 'What do you think? My friend, what do you think?' Get 'em talking. Once they start talking eventually they'll say something you agree with."

Breyer fielded questions ranging from about books he loves to paintings he borrowed to display in his chambers. He said that as part of his daily routine he watches reruns of "M*A*S*H," the popular TV show that ran from 1972 to 1983 about a mobile U.S. Army hospital during the Korean War, rides a stationary bike and has taken to meditation.

Breyer became the court's oldest justice following the September death of fellow liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg at age 87.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)