Breyer: Pragmatic Lawyer and Judge

By Joan Biskupic
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 27, 1994

Sometimes, Supreme Court nominee Stephen G. Breyer seems to inhabit his own world. So fixed is he on his work that he has been known not to notice when pranksters put goldfish in the water cooler.

But in his own way, Breyer is focused squarely on the real world. Unlike many of the nominees who have preceded him, Breyer is not an ideological visionary at heart but a pragmatist with a time-honored American creed: that government can be made to work for people.

His record as a Harvard law professor, counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee and judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston is that of a facilitator who can dissect a problem, no matter how complex and divisive, and find consensus for a solution among competing interests. Breyer, in the mold of America's late 20th century technocrat, specializes in helping institutions adapt to changing times.

As a Senate counsel, he had a strong hand in drafting the law that deregulated the airline industry to the advantage, or so he hoped, of airline passengers. As a judge, he applied his skills to an arena that has confounded governments -- indeed, mankind -- for millennia: crime and punishment. He helped devise a mathematical formula intended to end disparities among criminal sentences -- again, with mixed results.

For the 55-year-old Breyer, traditional litmus tests of nominations past don't work. The man who would be the 108th justice has no overarching constitutional view and no known positions on abortion, the death penalty or equal protection of minorities and women. In court, he calls them as he gets them.

When President Clinton introduced Breyer in the Rose Garden last month, Breyer said the law should bring people "together in a way that is more harmonious, that is better so that they can work productively together." His is far from the impassioned approach of the man he has been nominated to succeed, Harry A. Blackmun, the court's most liberal justice. Breyer's opinions emphasize rules and balancing tests rather than declarations of moral principle.


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