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BREYER WONDERS ALOUD ON IMPARTIALITY IN 2000

In a remarkably candid admission, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer said he wasn't sure he had been truly impartial when the high court was asked to settle the disputed 2000 presidential vote in Florida.

Breyer -- named to the court in 1994 by President Bill Clinton -- was one of the dissenting votes in the 5-4 decision that canceled a controversial recount in Florida, sending Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, to the White House instead of then-Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee.

"I had to ask myself would I vote the same way if the names were reversed," Breyer said Saturday at Stanford University Law School. "I said 'yes.' But I'll never know for sure -- because people are great self-kidders -- if I reached the truthful answer."

Breyer is considered a moderate liberal on the often divided court.

With many believing the high court's narrow vote had divided along political lines, claims of bias surfaced again Saturday during the Stanford symposium on so-called "judicial activism." The term has become a catch phrase among Republicans and Democrats wary of judges' personal opinions influencing rulings and, some say, allowing them, in effect, to act as legislators.

Breyer said most jurists depend on the rule of law and legal precedent to make decisions -- guidelines they acknowledged are subject to interpretation.

"Precedent and rule of law. They don't answer everything, but they do give us a clue," Breyer said.

"Judges whom I've met by and large try to find the answer. They come to different conclusions, but they try."

The potential influence of politics in the courts has become an issue in the presidential campaign because the next chief executive probably will get to appoint at least one new member to the aging U.S. Supreme Court.

The court has been sharply divided, with two justices often acting as swing votes.

Breyer said some judges rely on exact wording in the Constitution, while others, including himself, take into account issues raised by the public.

"Do I read the newspapers and try to see which way the political wind is blowing?" he asked. "No. But we do decide through briefs that are submitted. . . . They are people trying to tell us of the impact of our decisions in their bit of the world."

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