Justice Breyer’s Call for Camaraderie

In a recent opinion piece featured in The New York Times, retired Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer extended a plea for fellowship among his former colleagues. His sentiment underscores a crucial aspect of the judiciary often overshadowed by the gravity of its decision making: interpersonal relationships across the bench.

Breyer, who retired in 2022, suggests that differences of opinion between the justices, “important as they are,” must “remain professional, not personal.” His piece—highlighting the release of his new book Reading the Constitution—is filled with anecdotes about the various justices he served alongside finding connections despite significant policy differences. “[T]his meant that we could listen to one another, which increased the chances of agreement or compromise,” Breyer writes.

However, the current Supreme Court landscape reflects a significant departure from Breyer’s call. Partisan polarization and contentious confirmation battles have contributed to an increasingly adversarial atmosphere within the Court. The consequences of such polarization are manifold, with disparate opinions often devolving into acrimonious exchange.

Placing civility and agreeability over differing views is a hallmark of the centrist line of thought, using the appearance of goodwill to disguise the depth of division between two positions. Politics is the art of being able to determine the law, and the law is the codified result of a society’s politics. That is never more the case than when decisions of vast importance before the Supreme Court are decided based almost entirely on the political considerations of the justices in the majority.

The gulf between Breyer’s hopes and reality was on display in the momentous 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade’s abortion protections. In a [New York Times] article from this past December on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering ahead of that opinion, Breyer is described as someone who “was sometimes dismissed by other liberals as an overly optimistic institutionalist who underestimated the ambitions of the conservative majority.” It emphasized through his “strong ties with justices on the right” that he hoped could be used to find some kind of consensus on the Dobbs case.

Hayes Brown, What Stephen Breyer Gets Wrong About the Supreme Court’s “Civility,” https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/supreme-court-stephen-breyer-new-york-times-rcna146235 (last visited April 4, 2024).

Historically, the Supreme Court has seen instances of camaraderie transcend ideological boundaries. Notable friendships, such as the bond between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, serve as testament to the potential for connection among those with divergent views. Despite their differing interpretations of the issues before them, the late Ginsburg and Scalia shared a mutual respect and affection that transcended ideological barriers—a relationship celebrated for its ability to bridge divides and foster collegiality.

Stephen Breyer's call for friendship offers a compelling prescription for mitigating the corrosive effects of ideological polarization.

Tagged: Supreme Court of the United States