Justice Stephen Breyer

Justice Stephen Breyer joined the U.S. Supreme Court on August 3, 1994, replacing Justice Harry Blackmun. Breyer was born on August 15, 1938 in San Francisco, California. He attended Stanford University, graduating magna cum laude in 1959. Due to receiving a Marshall Scholarship, Breyer continued his studies at Magdalen College at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. He received a first-class honors degree in 1961 and then attended Harvard Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 1964. Breyer also spent eight years in the U.S. Army Reserve. He was honorably discharged in 1965 with the rank of corporal.

Breyer began his legal career as a clerk on the U.S. Supreme Court. He clerked for Justice Arthur Goldberg in the 1964-1965 term. After two years at the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Breyer became a professor at Harvard Law School in 1967. He held this position for the next 13 years, although he sporadically held positions in the federal government during that time as well.

Breyer started his judicial career on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. President Jimmy Carter nominated him for this seat in November 1980, and the Senate confirmed him in the following month. Breyer would serve on the First Circuit until 1994, including four years as its Chief Judge at the end of his tenure. He also participated in the U.S. Sentencing Commission from 1985-1989, helping to standardize sentencing in federal criminal cases.

On May 17, 1994, President Bill Clinton nominated Breyer to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on July 29 in an 87-9 vote, and he took the judicial oath about a week later.

Breyer counterbalanced the originalist and textualist approaches favored by his colleague Justice Antonin Scalia. He has been described as a practical thinker who values real-world consequences over theoretical doctrines. When explaining his views, Breyer has argued that interpreting the Constitution or federal laws requires carefully examining the purpose of the provision under review.

Breyer took left-leaning positions on many controversial topics. For example, he generally favored abortion rights and gun control, while opposing the death penalty. He also advocated for the robust application of voting rights laws and supported the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which expanded access to health care.

On January 27, 2022, Breyer announced that he would retire from the Supreme Court at the end of that term. This came on June 30, 2022. Breyer was replaced by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who had clerked for him in the 1999-2000 term.

Selected Opinions by Justice Breyer:

Murphy v. NCAA (2018)

Topic: Powers of Congress

Congress cannot issue direct orders to state legislatures, regardless of whether it is compelling a state to enact legislation or prohibiting a state from enacting new laws.

Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt (2016)

Topic: Abortion & Reproductive Rights

Two restrictions imposed by a Texas abortion law placed a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a pre-viability abortion, constituted an undue burden on abortion access, and thus violated the Constitution.

Heffernan v. City of Paterson (2016)

Topic: Labor & Employment; Free Speech

When an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent the employee from engaging in protected political activity, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment and Section 1983 even if the employer's actions are based on a factual mistake about the employee's behavior.

NLRB v. Canning (2014)

Topic: Separation of Powers; Government Agencies

The Recess Appointments Clause empowers the President to fill any existing vacancy during any Senate recess of sufficient length. The Senate is in session when it says that it is, provided that, under its own rules, it retains the capacity to transact Senate business.

ABC v. Aereo, Inc. (2014)

Topic: Copyrights

A streaming service infringed the public performance right by selling its subscribers a technologically complex service that allowed them to watch television programs over the Internet at about the same time as the programs were broadcast over the air.

FTC v. Actavis, Inc. (2013)

Topic: Antitrust; Health Care

Reverse payment settlement agreements in the pharmaceutical industry are not per se illegal but should be analyzed according to the rule of reason.

Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (2013)

Topic: Copyrights

The first sale doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad.

Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. (2012)

Topic: Patents

When the laws of nature recited by patent claims are not themselves patentable, the claimed processes are not patentable unless they have additional features that provide practical assurance that the processes are genuine applications of those laws.

U.S. v. Comstock (2010)

Topic: Powers of Congress

In determining whether the Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes a particular federal statute, there must be “means-ends rationality” between the enacted statute and the source of federal power.

Hertz Corp. v. Friend (2010)

Topic: Lawsuits & Legal Procedures

For the purposes of federal diversity jurisdiction, a corporation's principal place of business refers to the place where its high level officers direct, control, and coordinate the corporation's activities. (This is known as its nerve center.)

Indiana v. Edwards (2008)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

The Constitution does not forbid states from insisting on representation by counsel for people competent enough to stand trial but who suffer from severe mental illness to the point that they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves.

Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White (2006)

Topic: Labor & Employment

The anti-retaliation provision of Title VII covers only those employer actions that would have been materially adverse to a reasonable employee or applicant. The plaintiff must show that the challenged action well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.

Oregon v. Guzek (2006)

Topic: Death Penalty & Criminal Sentencing

A state may limit the innocence-related evidence that a capital defendant can introduce at a sentencing proceeding to the evidence introduced at the original trial.

Illinois v. Lidster (2004)

Topic: Search & Seizure

A highway checkpoint where police stopped motorists to ask for information about a recent accident was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Barnhart v. Walton (2002)

Topic: Government Agencies

An agency's long-standing interpretation is not automatically deprived of the judicial deference that it is otherwise due because it was previously reached through means less formal than notice-and-comment rulemaking.

Zadvydas v. Davis (2001)

Topic: Immigration & National Security

The post-removal period detention statute implicitly limits the detention of a foreign national to a period reasonably necessary to bring about their removal from the U.S. and does not permit indefinite detention. After a presumptively reasonable six-month period, once a foreign national provides good reason to believe that there is no significant likelihood of removal in the reasonably foreseeable future, the government must provide evidence sufficient to rebut that showing.

Illinois v. McArthur (2001)

Topic: Search & Seizure

Police officers acted reasonably when, with probable cause to believe that a man had hidden marijuana in his home, they prevented that man from entering the home for about two hours while they obtained a search warrant.

Stenberg v. Carhart (2000)

Topic: Abortion & Reproductive Rights

A state law criminalizing the performance of partial birth abortion was unconstitutional, based on Roe and Casey.

FEC v. Akins (1998)

Topic: Role of Courts

The fact that a political forum may be more readily available when an injury is widely shared does not by itself automatically prevent standing in federal court.

Ohio Forestry Ass'n, Inc. v. Sierra Club (1998)

Topic: Government Agencies

An agency decision was not ripe for judicial review when withholding review would not cause significant hardship to the plaintiff, immediate review could hinder agency efforts to refine its policies, and courts would benefit from further factual development of the issues.

Brown v. Pro Football, Inc. (1996)

Topic: Antitrust

When football team owners had bargained with the players' union over a wage issue until they reached an impasse, and the owners then agreed among themselves (but not with the union) to implement the terms of their own last best bargaining offer, federal labor laws shielded such an agreement from antitrust attack.

Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Products Co. (1995)

Topic: Trademarks

The Lanham Act permits the registration of a trademark that consists, purely and simply, of a color.