One School’s Special Guest Speaker ‘on the Zoom': Supreme Court Justice Breyer

By Mark Walsh — April 13, 2020 3 min read

Students at a New York City private school had a special guest early this month as coronavirus concerns forced them to converge on Zoom: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Breyer spent a good 70 minutes on April 1 addressing the United Nations International School in New York City, telling students, faculty members and others in the school’s community about routine practices at the court and a bit about how he and his colleagues are coping with the pandemic.

The 81-year-old justice explained that he and several family members are staying at their home in Cambridge, Mass., which Breyer has owned since his years as a Harvard Law School professor and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston.

“I’m with my daughter, and my wife, and some of the grandchildren, who are at school, just as you are, on the Zoom,” said Breyer, in reference to the now-ubiquitous web conferencing platform.

Breyer acknowledged that some of his grandchildren attend the school, which enrolls 160 students from 109 countries at its campuses in Manhattan and Queens. The justice noted that he had visited the school before to speak and deliver a lesson about how the court operates.

“There we are. This has happened,” Breyer said about the circumstances of working from home. He seemed comfortable with his Zoom feed, which included a background of a photo of the front of the Supreme Court building, which made him appear to hover like a giant over his usual workplace.

“What a privilege it is for UNIS to have this opportunity to speak with” the justice, Dan Brenner, the executive director of the school, said during the Zoom session, which the school posted on Vimeo.

Brenner introduced four students to moderate questions submitted during the Zoom session. They were Alec Bresler, of New York; Won-Jae Cheng, of South Korea; Eren Levine, who identified herself as being from New York and Turkey; and Alexandra Zandamela, of Mozambique. All are members of the class of 2020.

Breyer spoke in some detail about the work of the court in determining which cases to accept for argument and then to decide the cases argued. The court’s March and April argument sessions have been postponed indefinitely, though the court has continued to release opinions, on the web, of cases argued earlier in the term that began in October.

“When my son was your age he said, ‘What is it that you do?’” Breyer said. “I said I read the briefs, and I write the opinions. So, you see, if you do your homework very well, you can get a job where you’ll do homework the whole rest of your life.”

Breyer received questions about a few hot topics. Asked about recent proposals to increase the size of the court or impose term-limits on the tenure of the justices, Breyer discussed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1930s “court-packing” plan to increase the number of justices after the court had struck down several New Deal programs.

“The country wouldn’t pass that, because they were afraid if he could do it, somebody else could do it,” Breyer said. “It’s called, in the Congress, where I did work for some of my career, ... what comes around goes around.”

Breyer, a longtime francophile who was inducted in 2013 into France’s Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, had a book recommendation for his student Zoom audience: The Plague, the 1947 novel by French author Albert Camus about an epidemic that ravages the French Algerian city of Oran, which has been getting renewed attention during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Some people think it’s a kind of allegory or analogy to the Nazis taking over France,” Breyer said. “But you don’t have to read it that way. You see how the people behave.”

He added: “Some behaved well. Some did not. We’re right there right now.”

Breyer was asked whether he expected the court to face any legal questions arising out of the pandemic, such as about the legality of stay-at-home orders.

“Will it come up in the form of a case to the court? I don’t know,” Breyer said. “The problem now is not really law, the problem now is really this disease, which is absolutely terrible. We’ll get over it. We’ll get over it.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

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