Judge Breyer's Life Fashioned Like His Courthouse

By Malcolm Gladwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 1994

The courthouse that Stephen G. Breyer built will stand on a spectacular stretch of Boston Harbor, a 10-story, $200 million block of courtrooms and offices turned into something more by a vast public atrium. On the outside, there will be parks and a boating dock; on the inside a day-care center, a theater, a community meeting hall, a restaurant and an art gallery.

This, Boston's new federal courthouse, has been Breyer's responsibility as chief judge of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the unusual shape it will take says much about the philosophy and temperament of the man who may become the next Supreme Court justice.

Breyer personally interviewed the architects applying for the project. He consulted with community and environmental groups. While cycling through the countryside of France three years ago, Breyer stopped, gazing at the buildings he encountered, talking animatedly with the locals about their design. He called his aunt in San Francisco to ask about how to make the building more accessible to children. He visited courthouses around the country, mining for ideas, and pored over the original plans for the Supreme Court in Washington, all the while insisting on a Boston complex that would expand the definition of courthouse from legal to civic, a place open in the evenings and weekends, a place inviting to the community.

"This most beautiful site in Boston," he said at the time the project was unveiled, "does not belong to the lawyers. It does not belong to the federal government. It does not belong to the litigants. It belongs to the people."

For Breyer, the law of casebooks and procedures has never been enough. His father was a lawyer. His brother is a lawyer. Virtually every one of his close friends from childhood is now a lawyer, and his own career has followed the quintessential legal trajectory: Phi Beta Kappa at Stanford, graduate school at Oxford, law school at Harvard, a clerkship at the Supreme Court. But his life and personality read as an effort to create something practical and personal from the law.

In this, Breyer bears the imprint of the powerful personalities of his parents, who pushed him to believe that a life spent in intellectual isolation was a life squandered. He also bears the mark of his particular peer group, those men of privilege who came of age in the window of optimism between World War II and the disillusionment of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam. Friends and acquaintances call Breyer an idealist, not in the utopian sense, but someone with an unshakable belief that the system -- both things as abstract as laws and as concrete as new courthouses -- can be used to make a difference.

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