Justice Breyer on Constitutional Principles and Methods of Interpretation

September 15, 2010

The Constitution is written generally so its principles can be applicable for changing times, Justice Stephen Breyer tells National Public Radio (NPR).

In his interview, which can be heard here, Breyer said, "I think we're following an intention by people who wrote this document - Madison, Adams, Washington, Hamilton. They had an idea that they were writing a constitution and in that constitution, they would create certain institutions ... to create basically democratic systems of government protecting basic liberty. Much in the Constitution is written in a very general way. Words like ‘freedom of speech' do not define themselves. Nor does the word ‘liberty.' And what they intended with these very basic values, in a document, [was that they] would last for hundreds of years. So they had values that changed but little, while the application of those values changes as circumstances change."

In an interview with ABC's "Good Morning America," to discuss his new book, Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View, Breyer said he wasn't convinced that the First Amendment protected the right of a Florida pastor to burn Qurans (the pastor eventually cancelled his plans after weeks of growing media attention). Breyer, citing a 1919 Supreme Court opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., said, "Holmes said it [the First Amendment] doesn't mean you can shout ‘fire' in a crowded theater."

For further reading on constitutional interpretation, see today's ACS Book Talk featuring a guest post from Stanford University law school professor Pamela Karlan on book she co-authored advancing constitutional interpretation that differs sharply from "originalism," which is promoted by conservative jurists, such as Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

[image via wikimedia commons]