In addition to being one of the Supreme Court's clumsiest justices, Stephen Breyer is also one of the more intellectually intimidating. He's fluent in French, has expounded on his judicial philosophy in two books, and is a gourmet chef and avid bird watcher. In a new interview with The Browser, Breyer discusses the five texts that have done the most to shape his judicial and intellectual philosophy. Three of are written in French, one concerns ordinary language philosophy, and the other is the autobiography of a 19th-century aristocrat. He heaps praise on all them, although Breyer the blurbster goes into less detail than Breyer the Supreme Court justice.
Democracy in America by Alexis du Tocqueville (1835)
- Breyer the blurbster: "[A] masterpiece of sociological and political analysis."
- Breyer the jurist: "Being a judge on a constitutional court is like living on a frontier. Is this statute inside or outside America’s boundaries? That's what we're deciding. Now, sometimes that's difficult. Is abortion inside or outside our constitutional boundaries? Is prayer in schools? These are difficult questions. But in the vast area between the boundaries, democratically elected representatives make decisions, after all sorts of consultation with the people, after all sorts of clamour. Tocqueville encapsulates all that."
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams (1906)
- Breyer the blurbster: "Every American should read it and so should anyone who wants to understand America."
- Breyer the jurist: "There is nothing that I can say about that, which you can't learn better from turning on your television and listening to commentators. There is concern that politics is too polarised. There is concern that it's difficult to think through questions, because the media reports comments made by people in public life in a bad light. There is concern that blogs and the Internet make it worse. I'm sure many criticisms have truth to them and many are exaggerated. But it is up to us to make our system work, whatever the challenges."
La Peste by Albert Camus (1947)
- Breyer the blurbster: "It really speaks to my generation."
- Breyer the jurist: "All over the world, people are trying to stop that plague because it's still there, in the hearts of people. To keep the plague away, we build institutions including independent judiciaries to interpret constitutions that contain words, which are protective of human beings’ basic rights. That's true in Europe, it's true in the United States, and it’s more and more true throughout the world. I have a job that is one small part of the effort to build a barrier against another epidemic of evil like what we saw in World War II."
How to Do Things With Words by J.L. Austin (1962)
- Breyer the blurbster: "[I]t helps me avoid the traps that linguistic imprecision can set."
- Breyer the jurist: "Austin suggests that there is good reason to look beyond text to context. Context is very important when you examine a statement or law. A statement made by Congress, under certain formal conditions, becomes a law. Context helps us interpret language, including the language of a statute. Purpose is often an important part of context. So Austin probably encourages me to put more weight on purpose."
A la Recherche du temps Pardu by Marcel Proust (1913 through 1927)
- Breyer the blurbster: "[Proust] has an enormous talent for building characters and bringing a world to life."
- Breyer the jurist: "[W]e can try to clarify our thoughts and remember the importance of form when we write. Proust shows us that activity helps give meaning to life and it's helpful to keep in mind as a judge."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.