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Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at AUP

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On May 3 at the American Church of Paris, Justice Stephen Breyer began his talk on his latest book, The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities, by comparing himself to Fabrice del Dongo, the hero of Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme. Much like Fabrice, who, in the midst of the battle of Waterloo, understands that something important is happening, although he isn’t quite sure what it is, Justice Breyer uses his book to clarify the transitions taking place in the US Supreme Court and in the world. “Over my 21 years in the Supreme Court, there have been real changes…I’m just trying to give you a little picture, a little tour of the horizon, as to how things have changed in my small, narrow institution, and why it’s important that we pay attention and try to do something. It’s not hopeless, but it isn’t a sure thing either.”

One crucial shift has been in the nature of the cases he encounters. At the start of his career, only a handful involved foreign law, while that number has now leapt to almost a fifth of the docket. By highlighting specific court decisions, he demonstrates how many cases echo beyond American borders: a Cornell student from Thailand who sells English textbooks imported from Bangkok affects international commerce and copyright law, while a South African man’s suit against his apartheid torturers calls into question a country’s autonomy, as well as international interference. In his introduction, Professor Stephen Sawyer explains: “In his book, he [Justice Breyer] insists that the most pressing questions of our time depend, at least in part, on our ability to expand American law out of the domestic context and into the world.”

Such developments also prove that issues such as technology, security, and the environment, do not fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of any single nation. “How do we create rules where, if other countries adopt similar rules, it’ll all work out all right? How are we going to solve international problems of environment, of commerce, of health? I mean, the environment isn’t going to stop at our border or at Europe’s.” While there may not be universal solutions to these and related questions, he asks us to recall those societies where seeking resolution through channels outside of the law inevitably led to destruction and instability. “The rule of law is not the only thing we need; it isn’t even guaranteed to work. But it’s the respect that all of us, in all of our countries, have for it that helps us constructively move forward, and I think our better natures are on the side of trying to use that law, together, for better purposes.”