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Stephen Breyer 'Product of a Different time,' Says Duke Law Professor

Neil Siegel reflects on retiring Supreme Court justice's legacy

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who announced his retirement Wednesday, is a pragmatist and a technocrat who has believed in the power of legal ideas, said Neil Siegel, a Duke University constitutional law professor and Supreme Court analyst.

“Justice Stephen G. Breyer has served on the U.S. Supreme Court since 1994, and he has been devoted to public service since the 1960s," Siegel said. "A pragmatist, he has interpreted legal provisions in light of their purposes and consequences."

“An intellectual, he has believed in the power of legal ideas. A technocrat, he has emphasized the importance of facts and expertise — and of judicial deference to both of them," Siegel said. "A self-conscious centrist, he has sought to forge consensus on the Court amidst strong ideological disagreements. A former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer, he has shown great respect for Congress as a coordinate branch of government. A judge since 1980, he has forcefully rejected the notion that the federal judiciary consists of partisans in robes.”

“In many ways, Justice Breyer is the product of a different time," Siegel said. "As he announces his upcoming retirement from the Court, Americans might ask themselves whether that time was a better one.”

Neil Siegel is the David W. Ichel Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science at Duke University School of Law and director of Duke Law’s D.C. Institute on Law and Policy.

A former clerk of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Siegel served as special counsel to U.S. Sen. Christopher Coons during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, and advised Sen. Coons during the confirmation hearing of Neil M. Gorsuch. Siegel also served as special counsel to U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden during the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings of John G. Roberts and Samuel A. Alito.

In July Siegel testified before the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States on the constitutionality and justifications of various court reform proposals and their effect on the perceived legitimacy of the court.