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Always an optimist, always a teacher

This article is part of a series of tributes on the career of Justice Stephen Breyer.

Aileen McGrath is senior counsel in the Supreme Court and appellate practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. She clerked for Breyer during the 2008-09 term.

Those of us who had the privilege to clerk for Justice Breyer have many fond and charming memories of the justice, his warmth, and his kindness. One of my favorite memories seems appropriate to share after hearing the justice’s remarks at the White House about our country’s ongoing experiment with democracy. Some commentators have suggested that Justice Breyer’s speech is a warning signal, reflecting a sense of doom about our nation’s future in light of recent divisive events. I had exactly the opposite reaction.

Justice Breyer has been emphasizing the democratic experiment, and teaching young people about the values embodied in the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address, for decades. If he had retired 20 years ago, he would likely have given a very similar speech to the one he gave yesterday. Indeed, he gave one such speech to a group of 10th-grade students who visited the court while I was a clerk. I remember the speech well because the circumstances leading up to it were especially memorable.

One of the perks of the clerkship was being able to arrange tours of the court for visiting friends and family members. I arranged such a tour for this group — from a girls’ high school in New York — because their teacher was a friend’s mother. I promised to meet them in a conference room afterward to answer a few questions about the court and what it was like to spend a year working there.

As I headed out of chambers, I mentioned to the judicial assistant that I’d be down the hall for a few minutes meeting with some students. The justice heard me say this, put down his papers, grabbed his jacket, and began following me down the hall as if I had summoned him. I’ll never forget the look on the students’ faces — who were expecting to hear from a 27-year-old nobody! — as I walked in with the justice himself.

Justice Breyer spent the next 30 minutes giving a version of what the country listening in yesterday heard, pocket Constitution and all. He talked about how he approached each case, with an open mind informed by his core beliefs and his background. And he described how the court’s role is the foundation of our ongoing democratic experiment and tradition, grounded in the Constitution and our nation’s fundamental values. I vividly remember sitting in the back of the room listening to him talk. The moment captured so much about Justice Breyer so perfectly: his enthusiasm and generosity, his optimism and belief in the court and our democracy, and his abiding sense of hope for the next generation.

To me, Justice Breyer’s White House speech resonated with the same optimism and faith in our democratic institutions that he showed those young students 13 years ago. Justice Breyer always aimed to inspire and uplift young people and students. I hope that the millions of people around the world who listened to his speech yesterday heard that same message.

Recommended Citation: Aileen McGrath, Always an optimist, always a teacher, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 28, 2022, 3:52 PM),