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Justice Stephen Breyer receives Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal, discusses time on Supreme Court

Breyer will retire from the Court at the end of this term

Over 250 Law students, professors and community members gathered to watch Justice Stephen Breyer accept the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law Tuesday afternoon. Justice Breyer — who has spent 28 years serving on the U.S. Supreme Court and will retire at the end of this term — was given the award for his dedicated commitment to public service and the values of democracy.

Each year, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation — which oversees operations at Monticello — partners with the University to select and recognize outstanding individuals in law, architecture and public service. According to University President Jim Ryan, as the University does not award honorary degrees, the Thomas Jefferson Medals are the highest accolades any individual can receive from the University. 

Breyer joins former medalists such as Justices Lewis Powell, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Willian Rehnquist, as well as prominent civil rights attorney Elaine Jones.

“Today, we honor Justice Breyer, a lifelong leader and a public servant whose devotion to upholding the values set forth in our Constitution has touched the lives of every American,” Ryan said. “Even among this company, there is no one more deserving of this recognition.” 

Ryan added that Breyer embodies the values at the heart of the University and its founder.

“Many of the ideals that Jefferson espoused remain central to the American experiment and remain at the heart of U.Va, including the idea of citizen leadership and public service,” Ryan said.

After leaving Capitol Hill, Breyer served 14 years on the First Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals and another nearly three decades on the United States Supreme Court.

Breyer’s time on Capitol Hill as counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee informed his beliefs about how the government functions and who is led to government service. Always inclined to see the good in others regardless of party affiliation, Breyer gained recognition for working across the aisle throughout his four years in the Senate.

“I don’t see why a person would spend time in public life unless somewhere down deep they wanted to do something good for the country, and that’s there, that’s there whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” Breyer said.

Risa Goluboff, dean of the School of Law and former clerk to Justice Breyer, described the Justice in many terms — “pragmatist and humanist, institutional defender and great dissenter, capacious intellectual and authentic and joyous human being” were just some of them.

“His belief in deliberation and the importance of relationships have made him the glue among his colleagues and his commitment to the Court’s unique role in the American Constitutional scheme has made him its greatest institutional champion,” Goluboff said.

A judicial pragmatist with a background in administrative law, Breyer was known for his opinions and dissents on issues of immigrant’s rights, abortion and capital punishment. Goluboff told the audience that Breyer espouses a commitment to active liberty, “the belief that government can not only help people but that government is the people.”

“To Justice Breyer, ‘the people’ are both the theoretical bedrock of the Constitution and the real human beings who make and live by the law everyday,” Goluboff said. “Justice Breyer holds out a basic humanity to all that he encounters.”

Leslie Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, spoke of the Foundation’s eagerness to award Breyer with the medal. Bowman recited a line Thomas Jefferson wrote to friend Edward Rutledge in 1796, that “there is a debt of service due from every man to his country, and expressed appreciation to Breyer for his commitment to public service.”

“Justice Breyer, you have paid that debt of service many times over, so much so that the debt now owed is one of gratitude to you,” Bowman said. “By our country, and by our fellow citizens.”

Golluboff then joined Breyer on the stage for a question and answer period, with most of the discussion centered around themes of political consensus and relationship-building. 

Goluboff began by asking about Breyer’s time on Capitol Hill and his background in administrative law. Upon a mention of the seminal case Brown v. Board of Education, Goluboff asked Breyer what the meaning of the case is today. Breyer commented that now, individuals of differing backgrounds and beliefs likely strive for the same end but simply have different ways of approaching the shared goal.

“People are disagreeing about means to the same end,” Breyer said. “And the end is, what is the end? The end is you have a country of 331 million people where each of those people respects the others as a person.”

Goluboff prompted Breyer to speak on his position regarding the proper scope of freedom of speech, to which Breyer talked about the value of consensus-building and finding commonalities with those you disagree with.

“This is a good chance, when you’re in the campus, to hear people you don’t agree with,” Breyer said. “Talk … and pretty soon you’ll discover that they say something you agree with. And when they say something you agree with you say ‘That’s pretty good, let’s work with that.’”

Breyer noted how the country is divided in many ways — seemingly alluding to increased political polarization — and how it’s common for individuals to assume they know what’s best. 

“The country is more divided in many ways. It’s easy to go say how right you are and how wrong somebody is,” Breyer said.

The event included a few questions from members of the audience, with topics ranging from what law students should do outside of school to how students can best implement the values of the University into their work. One audience member spoke about a noticeable “cynical sense going forward” among law students as certain legal principles come under attack and asked Justice Breyer if it worries him. After exclaiming that it of course worries him, Breyer again shifted his response to the value of consensus and compromise.

“I’m always worried, of course, but the question isn’t whether to not to be worried,” Breyer said. “People say what they’re thinking, okay, so now the question for us…is alright what do we do?”

According to Breyer, what law students — and any individual — should do is work with those they see as holding different beliefs as them and find common ground upon which mutual advances can be made.

“Try and be a positive force, decent, nice to that person you disagree with, see something amusing in what they say..and you’re more likely to bring them along,” Breyer said. “You can say well, there are other ways of doing it. What other way? I don’t know of any other way.”


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