Thanks to my friend Phil Bakes and his impressive list of good friends I got to spend a wonderful evening at the Strategic Forum annual awards dinner honoring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. It was a big thrill to meet Justice Breyer and to have the rare opportunity to ask him questions and gain some insight into how the court functions and how Breyer sees his role on the highest court in the land.
Justice Breyer told stories flavored by the weight of history. Quoting Alexander Hamilton, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President Eisenhower and Justice Frankfurter, added gravitas to the evening and at the same time made Breyer’s aw-shucks demeanor feel even more human and approachable.
During Q&A Justice Breyer was asked about how the court could pass the Citizens United decision giving corporations and unions freedom of speech and the ability to anonymously finance political campaigns. Breyer was quick to point out that he was in the dissent and was one of the four justices who disagreed with a decision he thought was clearly wrong. Having made his position very clear, he went on to cogently explain the reasons why the five victorious justices had voted the way they had and he made a very credible case to support the argument he disagreed with.
This magnanimous answer brought another probing question — how can you go back to the table, time and time again, to argue different cases with the same people, especially when the court seems to be so clearly split across political lines?
Breyer said that while he had assumed that the court was more fractious now than at most any other time in history, his investigation proved that wasn’t true. In fact, his research showed that over 40% of the cases brought before the Supreme Court ended in unanimous decisions.
But he said that it was the two unspoken rules of court protocol that helped to maintain their camaraderie and civility.
Breyer first talked about how cases are presented. Chief Justice Roberts explains each case and adds his opinion. Then they go around the room and each judge comments on the case. The key to keeping these procedures cool, calm, and collected is this: “Everyone speaks once before anyone speaks twice.”
Second, Breyer talked about the lack of politics in the decisions the court makes. As he said (much more eloquently than I’m relating it here I must admit), the judge you agree with on one case is someone you’ll be diametrically opposed to on the next. What’s important to remember is that “tomorrow’s always a new day.”
I’m a big fan of the simple yet profound. And Breyer’s simple wisdom reminded me of Robert Fulghum’s book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Here’s an excerpt:
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Simple yet profound. Imagine how much more pleasant and productive life would be if we could all follow the Supreme Court’s unwritten rules and Fulghum’s kindergarten lessons.