Breyer Reminisces, Signs Book, Skirts Politics

Monday night’s City Arts and Lectures program offered “local boy made good? personified.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, in an interview format conducted by New Yorker legal writer Jeffrey Toobin, was reminiscing about his days at Lowell High School in the 1950s when a distinguished-looking lady whispered to her companion that Breyer “looks just like his father,? a longtime lawyer for the San Francisco school district.

In the deep and throaty voice familiar to local lawyers who’ve spent time in the San Francisco federal courtroom of his brother, Charles, Breyer talked about biking over the Golden Gate bridge the other day with Chuck, about the persistent influence of Lowell and 1950s San Francisco on his thought processes, and about how the city has grown over the last 50 years.

He also discussed “Active Liberty,? the title of his new book and of his judicial theory that a justice should take into account history, legislative intent, and consequences — not just the text of the Constitution — when deciding a case. In short, Breyer came across as the thoughtful, intelligent and aggressively moderate pragmatist court watchers have come to know through his opinions.

With all the high school talk, it was fitting that the best question for Breyer came from a Lowell student. Abraham Lincoln, the student said, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, and went on to become heralded as one of the nation’s greatest leaders. More recently, President George W. Bush has allowed the government to conduct secret wiretaps. Will history forgive that apparent impingement on civil rights?

“If I did have an idea, I wouldn’t say,? Breyer said, smiling. But he added that “most historians think that Lincoln was wrong.?

After the talk, the local-lawyer-made-Justice signed scores of copies “Active Liberty? for a lineup of attendees, and lingered to speak individually to several.

— Justin Scheck


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