On January 26, The Jewish Theological Seminary welcomed an enthusiastic over-capacity crowd who came to hear Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the United States Supreme Court give a free public lecture that was fully booked soon after its announcement. In "Making Democracy Work," he examined such matters as why the American public accepts the Court's decisions, what the Court must do to maintain the public's trust, and how our courts make our democracy work.
In this fascinating and engaging speech—available to watch now—Justice Breyer points out that the Supreme Court, a body of unelected judges that is in many ways undemocratic, is an indispensable support of our democracy. Citing incidents from the early days of the republic and recent times, he reminds us that while contemporary Americans may take it for granted that a Supreme Court decision, no matter how unpopular, will be respected and enforced, this is by no means inevitable, and has not always been so. Discussing the controversial Bush v. Gore, a ruling against which he dissented, Justice Breyer said that the most important aspect of that case is one that is often forgotten. Noting that the decision was very important, unpopular, and wrong, still, Justice Breyer said, the ruling was accepted by the losing side, the government, and the American people. This, he said, is vital to our nation and our freedoms, and that he often advises young students who may have wished that it had been met with defiance to look at "what happens in countries that decide their major difficulties and problems in the streets with guns or weapons rather than in a court of law."
"In case after case," Justice Breyer said, the members of the court are not facing questions between right versus wrong but of "right versus right," saying that a typical case is one that must decide between protecting the freedom of expression and safeguarding the individual right to privacy.
Justice Breyer is the latest in a line of U.S. Supreme Court Justices who have appeared at JTS over the years (including Earl Warren, Antonin Scalia, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg)—there is, as JTS Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen noted in his opening remarks, "a long tradition connecting JTS intimately with the study of law." Justice Breyer's talk was the Bernard G. Segal Memorial Lecture in Law and Ethics; the program was established by JTS in honor of the late philanthropist and community leader who was the first Jewish president of the American Bar Association. The evening was cosponsored by Columbia Law School and the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of JTS and moderated jointly by Columbia law professor Ariela Dubler and Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, a renowned member of the JTS faculty who is the Louis Stein Director of the Finkelstein Institute.
JTS "is a place of Torah," as Chancellor Eisen said, "and Torah is concerned centrally with law. Law brings justice to the world, and God wants justice . . . In Jewish tradition, ethics becomes serious when ethics becomes law."