Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer visit to UNF

Colin McCann

Justice Breyer. Photo by Alexandra Torres Perez

On Monday Jan. 22, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer gave a lecture at UNF about the court, the world, American law, and “new global realities.” The event, a UNF Presidential Lecture Series, was co-hosted by UNF and The World Affairs Council of Jacksonville.

Before the lecture, Breyer attended a question and answer session with students from UNF and the World Affairs Council Great Decisions program.

During the question and answer session, students learned Breyer was nominated as an associate justice by former President Clinton in 1994. Before that, he served as a judge and chief judge in the Court of Appeals.

One student asked about Breyer’s opinion of the impact the right to association has on same-sex organizations. Breyer said the law states Congress can not infringe upon the freedom of speech, which he said includes thoughts, opinions, press and expression. He said people everywhere gather together freely, taking ideas and creating action.

Another student asked if the Affordable Care Act violates the 10th Amendment. Breyer said five justices supported the idea of the Affordable Care Act being constitutional, and the Chief Justice said the act could be passed under the taxing clause.

Another question focused on the 2nd Amendment, which refers to the right to bear arms. Breyer said five of the justices believed the amendment was referring to individuals carrying weapons, or “having a loaded weapon by your bed.” However, Breyer and three other justices said it has to do with state militias.

Breyer mentioned Article 1 of the American Constitution gives Congress the right to regulate militias. In order to protect state militias from being disbanded by Congress, he said the 2nd amendment was created.

Delaney and Breyer on stage. Photo by Alexandra Torres Perez

Regarding cases the Supreme Court views, Breyer said only about 80 out of millions of cases make it to the Supreme Court after appeals and settling. Breyer also mentioned half of the time the nine justices are unanimous in their decisions.  

After the question and answer session, the lecture began. During the lecture, Justice Breyer spoke with UNF President John Delaney in front of thousands.

Delaney started the lecture off by asking Breyer what the public is getting wrong when they view the decision making of the Supreme Court as a political arena.

Breyer said when it comes to Congress there are no secrets between them. He said some cases require more work to determine the correct path. However, through all the work the justices keep a cool head and work together. They may have different views, but according to Breyer that is OK.

When asked how the justices can work together so well, Breyer said they act professionally and listen to each other. He said he has never heard any of the justices raise their voice in anger nor has he heard any of the justices saying anything demeaning about each other.

“We all get along well,” he said. Nobody speaks twice, unless everyone has already gotten the chance to speak, and they will take their time to think about the situation.

Delaney then asked about a meeting Breyer had with the Chief Justice of Ghana in 2010. In the meeting, Breyer had been asked why citizens follow the rules of the court, particularly when the rule is controversial.

Breyer said someone has to have authority, and it makes it easier to follow the rules of the court, because the justices don’t have any “power of the purse . . . or power of the sword.” However, Breyer did mention that you can’t rely on judges. Instead, we must look to the people. He refers to Martin Luther King, who stood up and changed America.

Breyer then talked about the importance of looking to other countries to see how they handle issues. He said it is helpful for him to see the problems and how others face them. He does point out that some people have expressed concern that this will cause America to lose some of its values. Beyer explains we don’t need to participate and understand, so America doesn’t end up in a situation it doesn’t understand.

The lecture concluded with gratitude and applause for Breyer. There was a lot to take away from this one hour event, but most importantly those who attended left with the knowledge that everyone can make a difference, even if we don’t hold a seat in Congress.


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