Justice Stephen Breyer on being a justice: ‘Don’t let up,’ and meditate

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(WASHINGTON) — As the U.S. Supreme Court enters the final month of its term, and speculation swirls around his possible retirement, Justice Stephen Breyer on Friday used a rare public appearance to reflect on his intellectual staying power and a vigorous daily routine that sustains him on the bench.

“I’ve learned that the best you can do is you do your best. The interest of this job is that you have to sort of put out your best all the time. The cases are interesting and difficult. They matter to people. Don’t let up,” Breyer said in conversation with Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center.

“As you get older, you think that’s a very big virtue, a very big virtue,” Breyer added, “because what we have, all of us, whatever it is — everybody has ‘something,’ and to be in a situation where you have to use that ‘something,’ really, you hope, for the benefit of other people, that is a privilege.”

Breyer, at 82, is the oldest jurist on the court and the most senior member of its liberal wing. He was not asked about and did not explicitly address his future on the court or the campaign by some liberal Democrats publicly pressuring him to retire.

But asked how he has kept operating at his fullest at his age, Breyer ticked off a vigorous daily routine: waking at 7 a.m.; stretching; breakfast of tea and fruit; working on cases with his clerks over Zoom; exercising daily by “fake bike riding on one of those machines”; and meditation for 30-40 minutes in the evenings.

“I focus on my foot. Very interesting. You know, you go up through your body and try to relax your body and get up to your head and by that time your eyes are sort of closed, and then go down again,” Breyer said. “It does, in fact, calm you down.”

The justice also volunteered that he is binge-watching episodes of M*A*S*H and reading a “history of the Hundred Years War, minute by minute.”

Many veteran court watchers say they have detected subtle hints in his recent appearances and writings that Breyer may not be imminently prepared to call it quits. He has also hired a full slate of clerks for the fall term.

Last month in a speech at Harvard, Breyer warned against politicization of the Court and insisted that justices are not beholden to the presidents that appointed them or a political party — a speech some have interpreted as a signal that the politics of the moment, with President Biden in the White House and Democratic control of the U.S. Senate, may not weigh heavily on his thinking.

“[Ideology] is not the job,” Breyer said.

As the court prepares to revisit longstanding precedents next term on abortion and gun rights, Breyer — who has voted among the fewest times to overturn precedent among the court’s current members — insisted that following established rulings is important for credibility and stability.

“The law might not be perfect,” he said. “But if you’re changing it all the time, people won’t know what to do. And the more you change it, the more people will ask to have it changed. And the more the court hears that, the more they’ll change it.”

“Can’t say ‘never’ [change precedent],” Breyer said, “but be careful.”

The conversation was livestreamed by the Constitution Center to hundreds of high school and college civics students tuning in online. Rosen asked Breyer about the future of American democracy and whether the “experiment” will succeed in light of recent events.

“We are still an experiment,” he said. “I am basically optimistic. I don’t know how much that’s justified.”

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