GREENSBORO — The U.S. Supreme Court is a mysterious place. Cases are argued before the nine justices. A ruling is handed down months later. But what happens in between?
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer cracked open the door to the inner chambers of the nation’s highest court Wednesday night at the Greensboro Coliseum. Breyer chatted with CBS News' chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford for nearly 90 minutes before a Guilford College Bryan Series audience.
Breyer, who has served on the Supreme Court for 25 years, covered several topics that he said most people seem to know little about or misunderstand.
Among them: the notion that the court is bitterly divided. It's not, he said.
About half of the court’s rulings are unanimous, Breyer said. Only about a quarter or less of cases are decided on a 5-4 vote, and it’s not always the same five justices in the majority, he said.
It’s true that the court remains divided on some important issues, Breyer said, but “I think the public does not have a correct impression … or the right nuance about what we’re doing.”
Breyer said the court is a professional place. When the justices huddle behind closed doors to discuss cases, there is no eye-rolling, snarky comments or voices raised in anger.
“What good would that do, I tell the law students,” Breyer said. “If you get angry, then the person thinks you’re emotional about this, and you think that helps your argument? This is a professional organization, people do their jobs, and they’ve been at it for quite a while.”
The Supreme Court really does lack drama, Breyer said.
“The secret to a court: The inside story is that there’s very little inside story,” Breyer said. “What you see is pretty much what you get.”
Despite their political differences, Breyer said the people of this diverse nation have chosen to follow the law even when they disagree and even when they think it’s wrong. They've decided, he said, that adhering to the rule of law is in their best interests.
Take the Bush v. Gore decision that settled the 2000 Presidential election. Breyer and many other American disagreed with the court's ruling in favor of George W. Bush. But people went along with it.
“There weren’t guns. There weren’t rocks thrown in the street. There were not riots. …
“You turn on your television set and you look at what happens in countries that make their major decisions that way,” he said as the audience applauded.
“Do I think it’s a danger to the court that people think our decisions are nothing but politics, that we’re junior varsity politicians? Of course it is,” Breyer said. “It undermines that sense of confidence that it has taken 200 years to build. We shouldn’t pretend we’re something we’re not, but you have to be accurate in what we do.”
On a lighter note, Breyer revealed Wednesday that he’s the answer to a trivia question.
The Supreme Court has a chief justice — currently John Roberts — and eight associates. The court's newest member is called the junior justice. Since 1869, when the Supreme Court went to nine justices for good, who had the longest tenure as junior justice?
The answer, of course, is Breyer. After he was appointed in 2004 by President Bill Clinton, 11 years passed until a new justice was named.
The junior justice has several unenviable roles. That person chairs the court’s cafeteria committee, which is responsible for running the windowless 185-seat restaurant on the court building's first floor.
But as the Wall Street Journal noted in 2017, the Supreme Court’s cafeteria has “long has been dogged by a reputation for mediocre food and a perennial struggle to turn a profit.” Several years earlier, the Washington Post ranked the Supreme Court dead last among D.C.’s government cafeterias and said “the food should be unconstitutional.”
In closed-door conferences after oral arguments, the junior justice always speaks last. (The chief justice goes first; the rest of the justices discuss a case in order of seniority.) Because these conferences are attended only by the justices themselves — there are no clerks, no stenographers, no assistants in the room — the junior justice must answer the door if anyone knocks.
One time, Breyer said, the late Justice Antonin Scalia ordered in a coffee. When the drink arrived, Breyer opened the door and brought the beverage to the man he called “Nino.”
“I gave it to him and he said, ‘You know, you’ve been doing this a long time,’” Breyer recalled.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I have, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it.’
“And he said, ‘No, you haven’t.’”
As the audience laughed, Crawford continued: “So when Justice (Samuel) Alito became the junior justice …”
“It was the worst thing he had to do,” said Breyer, who seems to be happy that he’s now the court’s third most senior member.