Stephen Breyer

Remarks on USSC Retirement

delivered 27 January 2022, White House, Washington, D.C.

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[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio with allowances for stuttering utterances which were not transcribed]

Justice Breyer: Well, thank you. Thank you, Mr. President. That is terribly nice.

President Biden: Thank you. [off mic]

Justice Breyer: And believe me, I hold it right here. [gestures to heart] Itís wonderful.

And I thought about what I might say to you. And Iíd like to say something I enjoy is talking to high school students, grammar school students, college students, even law school students. And theyíll come around and ask me What -- What is the -- "What is it you find particularly meaningful about your job? What sort of gives you a thrill?"

And thatís not such a tough question for me to answer. Itís the same thing -- day one almost up to day -- I donít know how many.

But the -- What I say to them is: Look, I sit there on the bench, and after we hear lots of cases -- and after a while, the impression -- it takes a while, I have to admit -- but the impression you get is, you know -- as you well know, this is a complicated country; there are more than 330 million people. And my mother used to say, "Itís every race. Itís every religion." And she would emphasize this: "And itís every point of view possible."

And itís a kind of miracle when you sit there and see all of those people in front of you -- people that are so different in what they think. And yet, theyíve decided to help solve their major differences under law.

And when the students get too cynical, I say, "Go look at what happens in countries that donít do that." And thatís there. I take this around at my job. [Holds up a copy of the Constitution of the United States of America.] People have come to accept this Constitution, and theyíve come to accept the importance of a rule of law.

And I want to make another point to them. I want to say: Look, of course people donít agree, but we have a country that is based on human rights, democracy, and so forth.

But Iíll tell you what Lincoln thought, and what Washington thought, and what people today still think: Itís an experiment. Itís an experiment. Thatís what they said.

And Joanna paid each of our grandchildren a certain amount of money to memorize the Gettysburg Address. And the reason -- the reason that -- what we want them to pick up there and what I want those students to pick up -- if I can remember the first two lines -- is that: "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought" -- created upon this -- here a new country, a country that was dedicated to liberty and "the proposition that all men are created equal," "conceived in liberty" -- those are his words -- "and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." (He meant women too.)

And we are now "engaged in a great civil war" to determine "whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

See, those are the words I want to see: "an experiment." And thatís what he thought. Itís an experiment.

And I found some letters that George Washington wrote where he said the same thing: "Itís an experiment."1

That experiment existed then because even the liberals in Europe, you know, theyíre looking over here and theyíre saying, "Itís a great idea in principle, but itíll never work."

"But weíll show them it does." Thatís what Washington thought. And thatís what Lincoln thought. And thatís what people still think today.

And I say, "Oh, I want youÖ" -- and Iím talking to the students now. I say, "I want you to pick just this up: Itís an experiment thatís still going on."

And Iíll tell you something: You know who will see whether that experiment works? Itís you, my friend. Itís you, Mr. High School Student. Itís you, Mr. College Student. Itís you, Mr. Law School Students.

Itís us, but itís you. Itís that next generation, and the one after that -- my grandchildren and their children. Theyíll determine whether the experiment still works.

And, of course, I am an optimist. And Iím pretty sure it will.

Does it surprise you that thatís the thought that comes into my mind today? I donít know.

But thank you.

Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by McGraw-Hill (2008)

1 See, for example Washington's letter of 9 January 1790 to Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham: "The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by reasonable compact, in civil Society. It was to be, in the first instance, in a considerable degree, a government of accomodation [sic] as well as a government of Laws." Washington also stated as much directly in his Presidential Inaugural Address:

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Page Updated: 1/28/22

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