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US Supreme Court Faces Tough Challenges, Interpretations in 21st Century - 2003-07-06

In a rare television appearance, two Supreme Court justices say that applying the U.S. Constitution to modern-day questions and dilemmas is no easy task, but one that has served the United States well.

Unlike presidents and legislators, Supreme Court justices generally shy from the glare of the media spotlight. But Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer appeared on ABC television's This Week program to discuss the court's duties and how they are performed.

Neither justice commented directly on issues or events from recent headlines in the news.

But Stephen Breyer, nominated by President Clinton in 1994, spoke about the need to balance national security concerns with issues of individual liberty. It is a topic that has been hotly debated since the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001 and the subsequent war on terrorism.

"No one would like to make a decision that harms national security. The difficulty [challenge] in these cases is to use words in the constitution, like "unreasonable search," to decide whether these arguments that favor security, as opposed to those that favor less restrictions on liberty, how the balance should be struck," Mr. Breyer said.

Justice O'Connor, nominated by President Reagan in 1981, added that many issues that come before the court are complicated as a result of technological advances never envisioned when the constitution was written. "Look at the Fourth Amendment that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Now, what is unreasonable, when the framers (authors of the constitution) did not know about DNA testing, for example? How do you adapt that today? These things are modern technological developments that you have to, somehow, apply in the context of a constitution written in the 1700s," Justice O'Connor said.

Both justices said the court tries to do its best, but is not infallible. They stressed that each justice must act according to his or her conscience in every case, and that there is no trading of votes on any issue.

Last month, the Supreme Court issued landmark rulings on a variety of sensitive issues from race-based preferences in university admissions to the rights of homosexuals to intimate conduct in the privacy of their homes. Neither Justice O'Connor nor Justice Breyer was asked about those decisions, and would have been highly unlikely to reply if they had been.

But Mr. Breyer addressed what he feels will be a primary challenge facing the Supreme Court in years to come. He said, "The world is growing together through commerce, through globalization, through the spread of democratic institutions, through immigration to America. It is becoming more and more one world of many different kinds of people. And how they are going to live together across the world is going to be a challenge. And whether our constitution fits into the governing documents of other nations, I think, will be a challenge for the next generation."

No television cameras have been allowed in the Supreme Court during oral arguments. Both justices said they oppose televising court proceedings, arguing that the complexities and subtleties of their work cannot be captured in a video clip shown on the nightly news.