There were dozens of empty seats in the room during Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s panel at the Law School on Thursday. Not that it was his fault. During the course of his talk, hardly anyone left the room (in fact, at least one person quietly entered midway through: Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who sat down next to an unsuspecting undergraduate toward the back). That’s one of the funny things about Supreme Court justices—they fly under the radar, way under the radar. If Barack Obama had tried to drop in on Breyer’s talk, the motorcade would have shutdown New Haven. I didn’t even notice Kagan enter; nor, it seemed, did Breyer.

It was a real shame that there were empty seats, considering who the speaker was and the rarity of an opportunity to see him speak. Whoever was in charge mismanaged attendance, and the result was embarrassing. I was ashamed to be sitting in an 85-percent-filled room with a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. We invited Stephen Breyer to Yale and then we didn’t even fill the auditorium?

He didn’t seem to notice the empty seats, although he did make a vaguely related comment about the low attendance at a recent panel with a group of the Little Rock Nine, the nine black men and women who were escorted into Little Rock Central High School in September 1957 by the 101st Airborne Division after the school was ordered to desegregate in the wake of Brown. “These people are heroes,” Breyer said, shaking his head.

Perhaps Stephen Breyer, the Supreme Court’s reigning authority on administrative law, is not for many people a hero in the strictest sense. In fact, I’d venture to guess that not that many people outside the beltway even know his name. In 2012, while Breyer was at his home on the Caribbean island Nevis, a robber armed with a machete broke in and held him and his wife at knifepoint, making off with one thousand dollars. The robber almost certainly had no idea who Breyer was. Lucky for Breyer. Lucky for the robber.

But if Breyer is not the most famous judge in the history of the Supreme Court, he is certainly one of this Court’s most fascinating and sympathetic characters. While generally a leftist stalwart and a consistent member of the Court’s liberal wing, he’s won both praise and scorn for demonstrating a willingness to compromise that harkens back to a bygone era in Washington D.C. To be sure, he’s no Anthony Kennedy. Breyer is a liberal, but a pragmatic one. He’s also no Ruth Bader Ginsburg, although they like each other.

The most famous example of Breyer’s ideological flexibility, according to Jeffrey Toobin’s 2012 book The Oath, came at the end of the Court’s term in 2005, when it handed down two decisions regarding displays of the Ten Commandments in public spaces. Even as the justices rejected a proposal to post the Commandments in Kentucky courthouses, they permitted the Commandments to remain on display in a public park in Austin, Texas. Breyer, the swing vote, was in the majority on both cases.

Breyer’s reasoning in those two cases, though seemingly inconsistent, reflects the interesting pragmatism of his jurisprudence. “The Kentucky Commandments, which everyone in the courthouse could see, were clearly intended as a provocation, and the display had been controversial from the moment it was posted,” writes Toobin, explaining Breyer’s thinking. “In Texas, on the other hand, the monument with the Commandments drew no notice at all for forty years.” Makes sense to me.

After teaching for some time at Harvard Law School during the 1960s, Breyer moved to Washington D.C. to work in Congress as the chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a formative experience for him as a legal thinker. Mornings he would eat with the top lawyer for Strom Thurmond, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee (the senior Democrat was Ted Kennedy). “Of course,” Toobin writes, “Kennedy and Thurmond were ideological adversaries, but they directed their representatives to find areas of common ground. Indeed, it turned out to be a remarkably successful legislative partnership, producing landmark laws that deregulated the trucking, airline, and natural gas industries. Breyer loved that time in his life.”

Still, if this experience instilled in Breyer a somewhat rare flexibility in the context of today’s more and more ideologically-ossified Court, Breyer is also in some respects exactly like most of the old white men who, for the vast majority of the Court’s history, have filled its nine seats. He came from a good family (his brother, who went to Harvard and then UC Berkeley for law school, is a federal judge for the Ninth Circuit in California). Breyer went to Stanford, then Harvard Law School, and then he taught at Harvard. (By the way, Margaret Marshall, retired Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court who was co-moderating the panel with President Peter Salovey, couldn’t resist the softball Harvard-is-not-America’s-best-law-school joke. In a Yale Law School auditorium filled mostly with Yale Law School students, it was literally preaching to the choir. Then Breyer made a Yale joke of his own, which was actually funny, and we all laughed.)

Which is one reason it was such a shame that there were empty seats in the room—Breyer is a good talker. Having never seen him speak in person or on television, I had imagined that he would be boring. His professional focus as a law professor at Harvard was antitrust and administrative law. He’s a technocrat, and beyond that he’s a Supreme Court justice. They’re not elected officials; they’re lawyers who are appointed for life. When they speak, they expect you’ll listen.

But Breyer is an animated, dramatic, lively speaker. He mimed dialogue to demonstrate his points (“I would say…, so then you would say…, but then I’d say…”), he spoke with his hands (which were often wielding a pocketsize Constitution that he removed from his jacket shorting after he sat down), and he was funny (question, from Salovey: “What do you think is the chief deficiency of the U.S. Constitution?” Answer, from Breyer: “I would like the Constitution to incorporate all my dissents”).

Having sat on the court for two decades, Breyer, at 76, may be nearing the end of his time on the high court. Then again, maybe not. The oldest Supreme Court justice ever, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., retired from the Court when he was 90. The median age on the court today is 66 (Clarence Thomas); the youngest justice is 54 (Elena Kagan) and the oldest is 81 (Ruth Bader Ginsburg).

I hope Breyer sticks around. He’s a good justice and a good person to listen to during lunchtime on a Thursday. Hopefully the next time he comes to New Haven we can fill the room.

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