U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer answers questions Wednesday night during the Guilford College Bryan Series program at the Greensboro Coliseum.

When I cover a lecture that lasts for an hour and a half like I did the other night, not everything that gets said will make it into my story. I'm writing a summary, not a complete transcript, and not everything said is compelling.

Usually, though, there are some interesting things that I can't squeeze into a story. Here's one of them.

Toward the end of Wednesday's Guilford College Bryan Series event, moderator Jan Crawford of CBS News asked U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer about his 2015 book, "The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities." Four years later, Crawford wondered, was Breyer's book correct? 

Yup, said Breyer, it was. "The number of cases in which there is an important effect beyond our shores (has) skyrocketed — maybe 15, 20, 30 percent (of cases) — a lot," the judge said.

Breyer mentioned several cases with international connections. The one most interesting to me (because it involved higher education, natch) was a copyright case. A Cornell University student realized that textbooks were printed and sold in his native Thailand for much less than what they cost in the United States. The student got his family to ship him books from back home, and then he sold in the U.S. to help pay his tuition. The textbook publisher sued.

The very technical case seemed to hinge on a single obscure sentence in American copyright law. But Breyer was puzzled as to why his office was flooded with legal briefs on this case. 

Breyer: "I found the answer in a brief that told us that the answer to this question that sounds so technical will affect $3 trillion worth of commerce."

Crawford: "With a 'T'?"

Breyer: "With a 'T'! That's right."

Crawford (gobsmacked): "Oh, god."

Breyer: "That's a lot of money even today."

(Breyer didn't mention the outcome of the case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons Inc., but I will: The court ruled for the student. In its 2013 ruling, the court said the copyright applies only to the first time something is sold and that geography doesn't really matter. I'm oversimplifying, of course, but the previous link goes to the authoritative Oyez.org summary, this link will take you to a concise Wikipedia write-up, and this link goes to a Washington Post story. The vote was 6-3; Breyer wrote the decision.)

At a time when the United States seems to be trying to wall itself off from the outside world, Breyer argued that there are many issues — the environment, immigration, terrorism, education — are worldwide problems that seem to defy national borders. The U.S. courts, he added, must pay attention.

"There are dozens and dozens (of cases) over the last few years when you had to know something about foreign law or foreign facts or what goes on abroad, ..." Breyer said.

"People will try to solve this through collective means or discussions in a thousand different ways. If we don't participate at all, they'll do it anyway, and we'll have a world that we like less."

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