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A Judge's View

by Stephen Breyer

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-26991-1
Publisher: Knopf

For the general reader, a sitting Justice explains how the Supreme Court won the public trust and what it must do to keep it.

Employing a succession of cases from Marbury v. Madison to Bush v. Gore, Breyer (Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution, 2005) offers a short, highly accessible course on the evolution of judicial review, the doctrine permitting the Court to invalidate laws conflicting with the Constitution. Although history and tradition explain how the Court’s decisions and interpretations have earned deference from public officials and acceptance from the citizenry, preserving that hard-won, critical role in our democracy, the author insists, requires the Court to issue decisions that ensure the Constitution works in practice. Rejecting originalism, political or subjective preferences, he argues for a pragmatic interpretation of the Constitution that looks first to the purposes and consequences of the law and relies on strength of reasoning for persuasion. Applying an 18th-century document to the unanticipated controversies of the modern nation or divining the meaning of frequently incomplete or silent statutes is rarely simple. The merits of any single case aside, the Court must also take into account a variety of legal doctrines, properly respect the expertise and prerogatives of the other governmental branches and avoid insult to state and inferior U.S. courts in our federal system, all in the service of forging decisions acceptable to the country. In a passage on the Court’s special province, protecting individual rights, Breyer takes us through a judge’s thinking—how he identifies the enduring value in a constitutional provision and applies it to particular facts. The author concludes with a comparison of the infamous Korematsu decision approving the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II with the four recent Guantánamo cases, in which the Court adopted a more workable approach, even during a time of serious national threat, to protect constitutional values.

Speaking out without talking down, Breyer renders a signal service to his fellow citizens.