More than 250 law students, professors and community members gathered to see Judge Stephen Breyer accept the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law Tuesday afternoon. Justice Breyer – who spent 28 years serving on the United States Supreme Court and will retire at the end of that term – received 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 the fields of 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 honors an 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 lawyer Elaine Jones.
“Today we honor Justice Breyer, a longtime leader and public servant whose dedication to upholding the values set forth in our Constitution touched the life of every American,” Ryan said. “Even in this company, there is no one who deserves this recognition more.”
Ryan added that Breyer embodies the values at the heart of the University and its founder.
“Many of the ideals that Jefferson embraced remain central to the American experience and remain central to the 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 of the United States Court of Appeals and nearly three more decades on the United States Supreme Court.
Breyer’s time on Capitol Hill as counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee informed his beliefs about how government works and who is driven to government service. Always keen to see the good in others, regardless of party affiliation, Breyer was credited with 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 they want 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 law school and former clerk to Justice Breyer, described the justice in several terms – “pragmatist and humanist, institutional defender and great dissident, intellectual of great capacity and genuine and joyful human being” were only a few of them.
“His belief in deliberation and the importance of relationships made him the glue of his colleagues and his commitment to the Court’s unique role in the American constitutional system 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 rights, Abortion and Capital punishment. Goluboff told the audience that Breyer espoused a commitment to active freedom, “the belief that government not only can help people, but that government is the people.”
“For Judge Breyer, ‘the people’ are both the theoretical foundation of the Constitution and the real human beings who make and live by the law every day,” Goluboff said. “Judge Breyer brings a fundamental humanity to all he encounters.”
Leslie Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, spoke of the Foundation’s eagerness to award the medal to Breyer. Bowman recited a line that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend Edward Rutledge in 1796, that “every man owes a debt of service to his country, and expressed his gratitude to Breyer for his commitment to public service.”
“Mr. Justice Breyer, you have paid this debt of service many times over, so much so that the debt now owed to you is a debt of gratitude to you,” Bowman said. “By our country, and by our fellow citizens.
Golluboff then joined Breyer onstage for a question and answer period, with most of the discussions centering on the themes of political consensus and relationship building.
Goluboff began by asking about Breyer’s time on Capitol Hill and his background in administrative law. On a mention of the Seminole affair Brown v. Board of Education, Goluboff asked Breyer what the meaning of the case was today. Breyer pointed out that now individuals from different backgrounds and beliefs are likely striving for the same goal, but simply have different ways of approaching the common goal.
“People disagree on ways to achieve the same goal,” Breyer said. “And the end is, what is the end? The end is that you have a country of 331 million people where each of those people respects the others as a person.
Goluboff prompted Breyer to talk about his position regarding the appropriate scope of free speech, to which Breyer spoke about the value of finding consensus and finding common ground with those you are not with. disagree.
“It’s a good opportunity when you’re on campus to hear from people you disagree with,” Breyer said. “Talk…and you’ll soon find they’re saying 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 – apparently alluding to increased political polarization – and how it is common for individuals to assume they know what is best.
“The country is more divided in many ways. It’s easy to tell how right you are and how wrong someone is,” Breyer said.
The event included a few questions from audience members, with topics ranging from what law students should be doing outside of school to how best for students to implement University values in their work. One audience member spoke of a noticeable “cynical sense of the future” among law students as certain legal principles below offensive and asked Judge Breyer if that worried him. After exclaiming that this of course worried him, Breyer again shifted his response to the value of consensus and compromise.
“I’m still worried, of course, but the question isn’t whether to worry,” Breyer said. “People say what they think, okay, so now the question for us… is okay, what do we do?”
According to Breyer, what law students – and any individual – should do is work with those they see as having different beliefs and find common ground on which mutual advances can be made.
“Try to be a positive, decent, kind force to that person you disagree with, see something funny in what they say…and you’re more likely to bring it up. “, said Breyer. “You can say well, there are other ways to do it. What other way? I don’t know of any other way.