RICHMOND, Va. – Unlike politicians, judges cannot let popularity influence their decisions, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer said Thursday.
“Congress is the expert on popularity,” Breyer told an invitation-only gathering of lawyers, judges and academics at the University of Richmond School of Law.
Breyer spoke at a ceremony dedicating the law school’s moot courtroom in memory of the late U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr., whose orders to desegregate Virginia’s public schools in the early 1970s were highly unpopular among some Whites. Merhige required 24-hour security for a while. A cottage on his property was burned, and his dog was killed.
Breyer did not specifically mention those incidents in his speech, but he did cite the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis as an example of the courts—and, in this case, President Dwight D. Eisenhower—taking a stand that was unpopular among some at the time. After Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus defied court orders to integrate, Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort nine Black students into the school.
“It was a great day for the rule of law, a great day for equality, a great day for the United States,” Breyer said, noting that other breakthroughs in the civil rights movement followed.
Breyer spoke about that case because it is one he wrote about in his new book, “Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View.”’ He said he wrote the book to explain to the public, which is getting increasingly cynical about government, how the Supreme Court works and how the role of the judiciary fits in with the executive and legislative branches.
Judges, Breyer said, are not “junior varsity politicians” but are tasked with protecting the basic rights of individuals.
In a brief interview after the speech, Breyer said people sometimes mistake a judge’s “judicial approach” for politics or ideology. He said that, by middle age, a judge has views shaped by the entirety of his or her experiences that will guide the judge’s deliberations.
“In respect to that, you can’t jump out of your own skin—and you shouldn’t,” he said.
Breyer was appointed to the court in 1994 by President Bill Clinton and usually aligns with the more liberal members of the court.
Asked about Merhige, Breyer said it was appropriate for the law school to name the moot courtroom in his honor.
“He was great. He stood up for equal protection under the law,” Breyer said.
Merhige received his law degree from the University of Richmond and served as a federal judge for 31 years.
Mark Merhige of Richmond, youngest of the judge’s two sons, said the honor “means the world to us.”
“I can think of nothing that touches closer to home,” Merhige said. “Next to sitting on the bench, the classroom was his favorite place to be—and the moot courtroom was his classroom.”