The Supremacy of Law: Justice Stephen Breyer Speaks in Sun Valley 

This summer, a lot of important and talented people have touched down in Sun Valley. Steve Martin was masterful as both a comic and a bluegrass banjo bandleader. Itzhak Perlman took a star turn with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony. And Carole King and James Taylor sent the local Baby Boomers into nostalgic ecstasy.

Last weekend, the Sun Valley Writers' Conference drew in yet another wave of very important people. But only one had the word "supreme" on his business card.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer spent much of his time answering a simple question: What, exactly, does an Associate Justice of the nation's highest court do?

Breyer once told his son Michael, "If you do your homework really well, you can get a job where you can do homework for the rest of your life." That's essentially what he does in Washington, D.C., Breyer said.

"Basically I read, and I write."

Breyer paid homage to the elegance and the genius of our Constitution--that document that "constitutes" our democratic government, as he put it.

Breyer spun a tale of Cooper v. Aaron, one of his favorite cases. Then-Arkansans Gov. Orval Faubus defied federal law and sent in a militia to block nine black students--the Little Rock Nine--from entering Central High School. A furious President Dwight Eisenhower summoned the rebel Faubus to the presidential summer home in Newport, R.I., and the former supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe dressed the governor down, "like a general tells a lieutenant," Faubus recalled. But back in Arkansas, Faubus remained defiant.

At this pivotal moment, faced with allowing the South to rise again or to flex his federal muscle, Eisenhower went full general. He called out Faubus on national television--"Federal law ... cannot be flouted with impunity by any individual or any mob of extremists"--and sent in the 101st Airborne, the heroes of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, to enforce the ruling. The Little Rock Nine went to school on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 1958, and the rest is Civil Rights history.

If Cooper v. Aaron was an easy (or at least unanimous) decision that was difficult to enforce, the more recent drama of 2000's Bush v. Gore demonstrated a tough decision (5-4 for Bush) that was immediately accepted as law.

Think about it, Breyer said: "Al Gore won the popular vote nationwide, but lost in Florida by just 2,000 votes."

When Gore sought a recount and the Florida Supreme Court obliged, Bush sued. The case reached Breyer's desk, and the rest was history. What was remarkable about it, Breyer said, is that even though "vast numbers of Americans thought it was wrong," and even he himself thought it was wrong, "people followed it."

"In other places, there would have been guns and bullets. The fact that no blood was shed after Bush v. Gore," Breyer said, "is what makes America great.

"It might sound like a Fourth of July speech, but it's a part of my life," Breyer said to a closing standing ovation.

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