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Supreme Court justice illuminates U.S. Constitution

February 22, 2008

U.S. Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer detailed his vision of the United States Constitution and a citizen’s role in making it work in his speech, “Our Democratic Constitution,” delivered Feb. 12 to more than 700 people at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Breyer made his remarks at the 12th annual Willard H. Pedrick Lecture.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor introduced Breyer as her colleague, friend and a great judge.

Breyer said he was very nervous when he joined the Supreme Court and was told, “Just follow Sandra Day O’Connor around and you’ll learn.”

Breyer and O’Connor have worked together to encourage teaching high school students about government and the Constitution.

Breyer says the essence of the Constitution is a certain kind of democracy, which protects human liberties, divides power so that no one becomes too powerful, assures a degree of equality and insists upon a rule of law.

Under this document, Breyer says, it’s not the job of the Supreme Court to tell people what to do, but to “patrol the rails, the boundaries, the frontiers” of a democratic space, in which individuals fight, argue and discuss issues to decide what kind of country they want.

Breyer analyzed the issue of campaign finance legislation, which limits the dollar amount an individual can contribute to a candidate.

The Constitution says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. One side argues that limiting contributions limits an individual’s ability to express his views through the candidate he supports. The other side argues that if the very wealthy trump the less wealthy who cannot afford to contribute as much, then their views are drowned out; the enabling of one to some degree disenables the other, he says.

“We have arguments related to free speech on both sides,” Breyer says. “Now what do we do? Ah, I wish I could tell you. I can say what we did do. What we did do was say this matter is up to the Legislature, as long as they are trying to perfect, to create a better public discussion.

But it will require supervision.

“The Constitution creates a democratic space, creates democratic institutions, because it assumes that you will go out there and fill them, go out there and participate,” he says. “It creates the opportunity to say what kind of city, town, state, nation you want, because it expects that you will seize that opportunity and do it.”

The Willard H. Pedrick Lecture was established in 1997 by the Pedrick family in memory of the founding dean of the College of Law. The annual lecture brings to the law school outstanding legal scholars, jurists or practitioners to enrich the intellectual life of the college and the community.