Justice Stephen Breyer appeared alongside President Joe Biden at the White House after announcing his retirement. Read a transcript of his remarks below:
Thank you, Mr. President. Terribly nice, and believe me, I hold it right here, it’s wonderful.
And I thought about what I might say to you, and I’d like to say – something I enjoy is talking to high school students, grammar school students, college students, even law school students. And they’ll come around and ask me, “What is the – what is it you find particularly meaningful about your job? What sort of gives you a thrill?” And that’s not such a tough question for me to answer.
It’s the same thing. Day one, almost up to day – I don’t know how many, but the – what I say to them is, “Look, I sit there on the bench, and after we hear lots of cases, and after a while, the impression, it takes a while, I have to admit, but the impression you get is, you know – as you well know – this is a complicated country. More than 330 million people. My mother used to say, it’s every race, it’s every religion – and she would emphasize this – it’s every point of view possible. It’s a kind of miracle when you sit there and see all those people in front of you. People that are so different in what they think. And yet they decided to help solve their major differences under law.”
And when the students get too cynical, I say, “Go look at what happens in countries that don’t do that.” People have come to accept this Constitution and they’ve come to accept the importance of a rule of law. And I want to make another point to them: I want to say, look, of course people don’t agree. But we have a country that is based on human rights, democracy and so forth.
But I’ll tell you what (Abraham) Lincoln thought, what (George) Washington thought and what people today still think: It’s an experiment. It’s an experiment, that’s what they said. And Joanna (Breyer) paid each of our grandchildren a certain amount of money to memorize the Gettysburg Address and the reason – the reason that what we want them to pick up there – and what I want those students to pick up – if I can remember the first two lines, is that “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers” brought” – created upon this here a new country. A country that was dedicated to liberty and the proposition that “all men are created equal. Conceived in liberty,” those are his words. “And dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He meant women too. And we are now “engaged in a great civil war,” to determine whether “that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
See, those are the words I want to see. An experiment. And that’s what he thought. It’s an experiment. And I found some letters that George Washington wrote where he said the same thing, it’s an experiment. That experiment existed then because even the liberals in Europe, you know they’re looking over here and saying, “It’s a great idea in principle, but it’ll never work. But we’ll show them it does.” That’s what Washington thought. And that’s what Lincoln thought. And that’s what people still think today.
And I say, I want you – and I’m talking to the students now – I say I want you to pick just this up: It’s an experiment that’s still going on. And I’ll tell you something, you know who will see whether that experiment works? It’s you, my friend. It’s you, Mr. High School Student. It’s you, Mr. College Student. It’s you, Mr. Law School Students. It’s us, but it’s you.
It’s that next generation. And the one after that. My grandchildren and their children. They’ll determine whether the experiment still works and, of course, I’m an optimist and I am pretty sure it will. Does it surprise you that that’s the thought that comes into my mind today? I don’t know, but thank you.
These remarks have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.