This past Thursday at the Plaza Branch, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer stood before a crowd of nearly 700 people and made a strong case for civic literacy in the face of cynicism.
“I think we are living in an era where people are pretty cynical about the government,” Breyer said. “And if people become too cynical, they won’t have a government – because they won’t understand they are the government.”
Hence Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View. Blending historical analysis and philosophy, Breyer’s latest book is a layperson’s guide to the Supreme Court’s history, its innerworkings, and, above all, its value as an engine of American democracy.
The Kansas City Public Library, in partnership with the Truman Library Institute, brought Breyer to Kansas City to discuss his book. A member of the Supreme Court since his appointment by President Clinton in 1994, Breyer laid out a few simple reasons why democracy won’t work if Americans don’t understand their government and don’t participate in their communities.
Yet despite his didactic message, Justice Breyer’s presentation was refreshingly upbeat.
Having arrived on a delayed commercial flight from D.C. barely an hour before his date on the Plaza, the 73-year-old justice took the stage with the fresh zeal of a first-year poli-sci major.
First, referencing a series of landmark cases that included the Court’s ruling in favor of Cherokee sovereignty in 1832 (which President Andrew Jackson ignored) and its ruling against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (which Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ignored), Breyer showed how one of the chief roles of the Supreme Court is to give an equal chance to causes that aren’t popular.
“The Constitution should give rights to unpopular people and unpopular legislation,” Breyer said.
“Congress” – he noted – “is an expert in popularity.”
Breyer also spent a good portion of his talk dispelling the notion that individual Supreme Court judges embody partisan ideologies – that they are, as Breyer put it, “nine junior varsity politicians.”
“Judges are terrible politicians,” Breyer said. “If I find myself making a decision that’s consistent with an ideology, I know I’m doing the wrong thing.”
Breyer also stressed that he and his fellow justices get along quite well, thank you.
“We all like each other personally,” he said. “I've never heard a voice raised in anger. I've never heard one member say something insulting about another, not even jokingly.”
In a political climate marked by divisiveness and fanaticism on both sides, Breyer’s claim of unity at the Supreme Court bench was reassuring.
And that seemed to be his goal – to reassure as well as to call us to a higher ideal.
Several times throughout his address, Breyer held up his pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution. It served as a powerful prop, signifying constancy in a world of flux.
“Our job is to take values that don’t change, that underlie this document, and apply them to a world that changes every five minutes,” he said.
Yet I don’t think Breyer was asking us to put faith in the flawlessness of the Supreme Court, the judicial branch, or in any part of the government. If anything, his message was just this: know how the government works and take part in it in your own community.
Otherwise, democracy doesn't work. And cynicism wins.
Video: Check out a short documentary featuring Alex Burden of the Truman Library Institute, which sponsored this great event.