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American Law and the New Global Realities

by Stephen Breyer

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-101-94619-0
Publisher: Knopf

A liberal Supreme Court justice takes on a conservative bugbear.

Associate Justice Breyer (Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View, 2010, etc.) notes that consideration of the decisions of foreign courts in Supreme Court opinions has recently "sometimes evoked strongly adverse political reactions," even though references to foreign decisions appear from the court's earliest days. The author attempts to allay such concerns by placing the court's modern engagement with foreign law in the context of a global economy. "The objections of critics," he writes, "do not reflect the reality of today's federal court dockets….It is not the cosmopolitanism of some jurists that seeks this kind of engagement but the nature of the world itself that demands it." Breyer argues that as American government and business become more closely enmeshed with foreign governments and with international organizations and commercial interests, federal courts cannot function effectively without taking perceptive account of the decisions and underlying reasoning of other nations' courts. While he acknowledges concerns that decisions based in part on foreign law may lack political legitimacy, particularly in the context of determining what constitutes unacceptable "unusual" punishment under the Eighth Amendment, he dismisses these cases as a sideshow. Breyer illustrates the plethora of international issues confronting the court by examining at length a number of cases involving, for example, the geographical reach of the Securities and Exchange Commission rule prohibiting fraud in securities sales and the interaction between a treaty on a foreign defendant's consular access and American criminal procedure. Breyer's style and exposition are remarkably clear. His summaries of cases are sufficiently detailed to highlight the complexity and subtlety of the issues presented for decision without being entirely daunting to readers outside the legal profession. Nevertheless, few but lawyers will likely have the patience to work through the arguments.

A carefully reasoned plea for a continuing engagement of the American judiciary in establishing a worldwide rule of law.