logo logo

Stephen Gerald Breyer

Stephen Gerald Breyer is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, Breyer is generally associated with the more liberal side of the Court.

Background

  • Stephen Gerald Breyer was born on August 15, 1938, in San Francisco, California, the son of Irving Breyer and Anne Breyer. His father was a lawyer who worked for the San Francisco Board of Education. His mother was active in the Democratic party and in a variety of civic affairs. Although as an adult Breyer’s marriage to the daughter of British gentry would land him in affluent circumstances, he experienced a childhood in more commonplace surroundings and would later recall to members of the Senate who inquired into his background that he had been a Boy Scout, a delivery boy, and a ditch digger for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

  • Education

    • Stephen Breyer attended a prestigious magnet school in the San Francisco area, Lowell High School, where he participated on the debate team and was voted by his graduating classmates “most likely to succeed.” After high school, he attended Stanford University and graduated summa cum laude in 1959. Over the next two years, he studied at Magdalen College of Oxford University in England on a Marshall Scholarship and received his B.A. there in 1961. Upon his return to the United States, Breyer attended Harvard Law School, where he served as an articles editor on the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude in 1964. His record at Harvard paved the way for Breyer to obtain a coveted clerkship with Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg on the Supreme Court during the Court’s 1964 term. His work for Justice Goldberg included preparing die first draft of Justice Goldberg’s highly regarded concurring opinion in one of the most important cases of the 1960s, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which recognized a consdtutional right of privacy for married couples to use contraceptive devices.

    Career

    • After Breyer’s clerkship with Justice Goldberg, he accepted a job in die U.S. Justice Department as a special assistant to Assistant Attorney General Donald F. Turner in the antitrust division. Breyer worked for the Justice Department from 1965 to 1967. In the year he left this federal post, Breyer married Joanna Freda Hare, the daughter of a wealthy English family. The couple eventually had three children: Chloe, Nell, and Michael. That same year Breyer joined the faculty at the Harvard Law School, where he taught regularly from 1967 to 1994, focusing his scholarly and teaching work mainly in the area of subjects involving government regulation, such as antitrust law. His wife Joanna took a position as a psychologist at Boston’s Dana Farber Clinic. Over the next 13 years, Breyer combined a career as a legal academic with frequent forays into the arena of public service. He briefly worked for Archibald Cox in 1973 as an assistant special prosecutor during die Watergate investigation. From 1974 to 1975 he was a special counsel to the Administrative Practices Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee and worked closely with the subcommittee chair, Senator Edward Kennedy, to sponsor legislation that eventually lowered airline fares by deregulating the airline industry. From 1979 to 1980 he was chief counsel to die Senate Judiciary Committee.

      Breyer demonstrated repeated ability to forge alliances across partisan lines, and his excellent reputation among both Democrats and Republicans eventually earned him a place on the federal bench. Toward the end of President Jimmy Carter’s term in office, he nominated Stephen Breyer to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. This nomination, made in November 1980, might easily have been stalled by Republicans until after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981. Nevertiielcss, Breyer enjoyed bipartisan respect tiiat prompted the Republicans to support his appointment to the federal appeals court. He served on the court from 1980 until 1994 and as its chief judge front 1990 until 1994. In addition to his normal responsibilities as an appeals judge, Breyer, who had worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee at a time when the issue of sentencing reform was before Congress, served as a member of the Sentencing Commission from 1985 to 1989. This commission established guidelines for federal judges for the imposition of criminal sentences.

      In 1993, when Justice Byron R. White retired from the Supreme Court, President Bill Clinton considered appointing Stephen Breyer to fill the vacancy on the Court, before ultimately nominating Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The following year, though, Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun retired after 24 years of service, and this time President Clinton nominated Breyer to replace the retiring justice. Though Breycr was a lifelong Democrat and was championed by one of the Senate’s most ardent liberals, Ted Kennedy, his reputation as a moderate won him easy approval in the Senate. In fact, he faced tougher questioning from Democrats anxious about his probusiness decisions as a federal appeals judge and about his work on the Sentencing Commission than from Republicans. Consumer advocate and frequent presidential candidate Ralph Nader testified against Breyer and chastised him for an overly solicitous regard for big business. Nevertheless, the pointed questions on issues such as abortion and capital punishment with which senators sometimes prick Supreme Court nominees did not trouble Breyer. Asked for his views on the death penalty, Breyer noted that its constitutionality in some circumstances was clearly established. “It seems to me that the Supreme Court has considered that matter for quite a long time in a large number of cases,” Breyer said. “At tins point it is settled.” Similarly, he acknowledged the settled nature of the Court’s abortion decisions. “The case of Roe v. Wade has been the law for 21 years, or more, and it was recently affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States,” he said. “That is the law.” The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously recommended that his appointment to the Court be approved, and in the end, Breyer was confirmed by a vote of 87-9 on July 29, 1994. He took his seat on the Court the following month.

    Major achievements

    • Bar: California 1966, District of Columbia 1966, Massachusetts 1971.

    Works

    Politics

    By all indications, Breyer might have been expected to take a position in the middle of the Court’s ideological range, and in his brief tenure on the Court to date he has tended to confirm this expectation. The labels “conservative” and “liberal,” often misleading when applied to Supreme Court justices, do not sit easily on Justice Breyer. For example, in United States v. Playboy (2000), he dissented from the majority’s decision to strike down a federal law that required cable television operators to block sexually oriented channels or to limit their transmission to hours when children are unlikely to be viewing as violating freedom of speech. Perhaps most significant, mo of the Court’s most conservative members, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, joined in Breyer’s dissent.

    On many issues, though, Justice Breyer has found himself at odds with the Court’s more conservative justices, who have formed a narrow majority on a variety of issues during the closing years of the 20th century and the beginning years of the 21st. A majority of the Rehnquist Court, for example, has been the midwife for a renewed concern for the prerogatives of states within the federal system, especially under the Constitution’s Eleventh Amendment, which immunizes states from suits by citizens of other states and by aliens. In controversial decisions such as Alden v. Maine 1999 and Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents 1999, a conservative majority on the Court applied the Eleventh Amendment to bar claims against states brought under federal labor and antidiscrimination laws. Justice Breyer joined three odier justices—John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—to protest this constitutional interpretation. Similarly, the same conservative justices have revisited die limits of Congress’s power to regulate matters affecting interstate commerce and have invalidated federal laws such as the Gun Free Schools Zones Act, held unconstitutional in United States v. iMpez (1995), and the Violence Against Women Act in United States v. Morrison (2000). Again, Breyer—joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg—has voiced his opposition to this constitutional development.

    Justice Stephen G. Breyer came to the Court with a distinguished career as a legal scholar and a federal appeals judge but nevertheless confessed that his early terms on the Court left him with the nervousness typical of a freshman justice. “I keep thinking of a New Yorker cartoon,” he said shortly after joining the Court. “A circus dog is about to set out, very gingerly, on a tightrope while a clown below unfolds a scroll. It says: ‘All Rex could think about when he stepped out upon the high wire was that he was a very old dog and this was a brand-new trick.’” But with whatever trepidation Justice Breyer undertook his work as a Supreme Court justice, he has become comfortable with a judicial voice that is neither stridendy liberal nor conservative. The last justice appointed in the 20th century is more a pragmatist than a prophet, more interested in solutions than in semantics. He has been accused of being a technocrat, but it is perhaps fitting that the ap-pointment of such a justice should conclude the long and turbulent history of the 20th-century Supreme Court.

    Party affiliation: Democratic Party

    Religion

    Denomination: Judaism

    Membership

    Trustee University Massachusetts, 1974—1981. Board overseers Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, 1977—1994. Member of American Bar Association, Council Foreign Relations, American Academy Arts and Sciences, American Law Institute, American Bar Foundation.

    Connections

    • Married Joanna Hare, September 4, 1967. Children: Chloe, Nell, Michael.
    • father: Irving Breyer
    • spouse: Joanna Hare
    • children: Chloe Breyer
    • Nell Breyer
    • Michael Breyer
    Stephen Gerald Breyer
    See on larger map
    Nationality
    Ethnicity:
    • 1959
      Stanford University
      New York, United States
    • 1961
      Oxford University
      England, UK
    • August 10, 1980 - August 3, 1994
      Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
      Washington, United States
    • March, 1990 - August 3, 1994
      Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
      Washington, United States
    • August 3, 1994 - present
      Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States
      Washington, United States