This story is from the archives of UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Justice Breyer speaks to UCLA Law students

More than 400 law students packed a Dodd Hall auditorium and filled overflow rooms in the UCLA School of Law to hear U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer describe the inner workings of the highest court in the land, his process for decision-making and the misperceptions Americans have about how the court does its job.
Breyer, 72, who was nominated to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1994, has written a new book, "Making Democracy Work, A Judge’s View." He told the students about historical cases that helped define the court, good or bad — including the 1831 decision that validated the Cherokee Indians’ claim to lands given them by treaty with the government, a decision that President Andrew Jackson countermanded.
He also cited the court’s 1944 decision upholding the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans and its desegregation order  in the Little Rock, Ark., school case.
Americans in general believe that politics is what influences the justices’ decision-making, Breyer said. "Politics [is] the first word that comes to their mind. We are a group of junior-league politicians. … [To them], the law is a computer exercise of rigid rules, which you just have to look up and then apply," he said. "It could be done by R-2-D-2."
But politics is not a consideration that enters into their decisions, Breyer said. Contrasting life experiences may shape the justices’ individual approach as to how the law is applied. And that, he said, is appropriate. “That will enter into a lot of open decisions when the word 'liberty' doesn’t explain itself and where the words "freedom of speech" don’t quite say what that means in borderline cases. … I have no problem with people who have different fundamental outlooks."
Still, in the Supreme Court’s controversial decision on Bush v. Gore that decided the 2000 presidential election, Breyer, who dissented from the 5-4 decision, talked about how his vote would have been interpreted by the public if his view had prevailed.
"That was a stressful period of time," he said, drawing laughter from the audience at the understatement, although no angry words or rude remarks were exchanged by the justices.
"It would have been perceived in the newspaper that I was on the side that helped Vice President Gore," said Breyer, who had met Gore a couple of times, although the justice said he didn’t know him well.
"So how would I know that maybe I was deciding this way because I thought it would favor Vice President Gore? Before I reached my decision, I had to ask myself the very question … Would I vote the same way if everything were the same, but the names were reversed? Thinking about that – and I did think about that pretty hard — I thought I would. … I came to the conclusion that that’s how I would have voted regardless.
"And I believe that each of my colleagues went through some similar thought processes."
In the end, there were no riots in the streets over the court's decision, Breyer said. 
"And that’s a treasure," he said. "No matter how strongly I believe that they were wrong in that majority, the treasure is that we have decided to resolves differences in that way."
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