Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said Thursday that it would benefit U.S. judges to study how other countries handle cases related to important global subjects such as terrorism, immigration, civil rights, health and the environment.
Breyer delivered a speech and answered questions from a moderator before about 500 people at Rhodes College in Memphis as part of the school’s program for Constitution Day, which took place Sept. 17. Breyer is the second sitting Supreme Court justice to speak at the private liberal arts university in recent years. Justice Antonin Scalia spoke at Rhodes in September 2015.
Globalization vs localism
Breyer touched on theories of globalization, versus localism or tribalism, stressing that the perception that those ideas are “at war” with each other is false. He cited cases related to international issues that have been heard in the U.S. because they were tied to the U.S., and U.S. laws or treaties that applied to them.
They include cases related to the internment of Japanese in U.S. camps during World War II, foreign terror suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and a foreign commerce case with ties to Ecuador and The Netherlands. He also discussed ways legal systems have handled immigration and terrorism cases in England and Israel.
Breyer said the Supreme Court is seeing an increasing number of cases in which international law comes into play.
“You have to know what’s going on beyond our shores in order to solve problems, statutes, constitutional interpretations, locally,” Breyer said. “We are a local court. You might all think, ‘Oh well.’ Yeah, we are.”
He said hundreds of bodies and organizations around the world have established laws, rules and standards that could lead to court challenges in the U.S.
“The more you read about this, the more you think it isn’t good versus evil. It isn’t somehow globalization over here, or localism or tribalism over there,” Breyer said. “It’s that we are in a world where there is both.”
Behind the scenes
Breyer also sought to dispel a perception that perhaps the Supreme Court’s liberal and conservative justices are “divided about everything.” Breyer said justices don’t raise their voices at each other while discussing cases. He also said they don’t make snide remarks at each other’s expense.
“We don’t fight all the time,” he said. “I can’t say zero. I can say it’s more just doing your work, and quite often agreeing much more than people think.”
Breyer is former federal appeals court judge who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1994.