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Stanford Report, June 18, 1997

Breyer's commenecment speech, part ii: 6/18/97


Commencement address

Continuation of Justice Breyer's Commencement address

With respect to the past, Bell's prediction tells us that democratic institutions, our Constitution, government and laws, are not simply words on paper, but are principles that have claimed the allegiance of generations. To see this consider Brown v. Board of Education, the case that ended legal segregation by race. Brown provides an example of law at its best, working to include among us groups that were previously excluded. When a Russian general recently asked me how the judges, through Brown and later cases, succeeded in ending legal segregation in America, I replied that it was not simply the judges, for neither nine Supreme Court justices, nor 900 judges nor 9,000 judges, could themselves have ended segregation. I told the Russian general about the Supreme Court's order to integrate the schools of Arkansas, when its governor stood in the schoolhouse door and said no. I told him that the president of the United States ordered American troops to Arkansas. Only then did the black children enter the white school. And that presidential decision reflects not words on paper or judicial decisions, but history and custom and a tradition that we built after suffering a terrible civil war. It reflected, too, the understanding that a country with so many different groups of people, of so many different religions and races and backgrounds, can best solve its differences, not through wars, but through respect for law.

That is the point. The carrying out of our commitment as a nation to basic principles of democracy, liberty and fairness has depended upon custom, tradition and commitment to the enterprise, not just by politicians and judges, but by millions of ordinary citizens. I experience the working of that tradition every day in my job. My parents' generation passed on that tradition to mine; we must to yours; and you must to your children; otherwise our society and our law - however decent and fair in principle - will not work in practice.

And so I come to the present. Bell's prediction about the durability of our democratic institutions reminds us of an important feature of the Constitution. That document in fact tells us how to solve very few of our nation's problems. It is an enabling (and constraining) document. Part of it describes a mechanism for making and applying law, creating a framework for representative government. Part protects our basic freedoms, permitting us to exercise our rights to speak freely, to worship freely and to choose our nation's course peacefully and democratically. Part protects the basic fairness of our system, so that majorities cannot unfairly and systematically oppress minorities. As a whole, the Constitution gives us the freedom to choose; it does not tell us what to choose. Rather it forces us, as a community, to choose democratically how we will solve our nation's problems. It therefore requires our participation, for without that, our Constitution and our country cannot work.

As to the future, Bell's prediction expresses a hope. It is the hope that you will participate in the affairs of your communities and your nation. Some would say that today's challenges are less clear - that, unlike my father's generation, you face no Hitler, no Nazis abroad; that unlike mine, you need not confront the evil of legal segregation by race. But you do face inner cities where the greatest threat to children's lives is homicide; where drugs and crime are prevalent but education, jobs and hope are scarce. You do face the ever-shrinking world, with its growing populations and rapid development, with threats of terrorism and ethnic wars. You do face the cutting down of forests, the heating up of climate, the overfishing of the sea, which threaten our Earth's environment. You do face the challenge of building a multiracial society. The challenges are there. And they are clear.

Some say that our governmental institutions are failing us. Many are cynical; public confidence in government is at an all-time low. But I see this as just one more challenge. If you do not trust the way our government works, make it work better. Government, after all, is no more than its individual citizens, showing their "public face," working together to solve the joint problems that we share as a community. Cynicism does not help.

Some say that moral confusion is becoming a great and insurmountable obstacle to a healthy, flourishing society; that television, movies and the press have somehow confused us; so that we have lost our moral compass. I do not believe that can be so. Society changes; notions of right and wrong may change to a degree, but only at the edges. We do know right from wrong; you do know right from wrong. Personal integrity - that rock - at the core remains the same.

Some say that you are too concerned about economic opportunities to have time for community affairs - though your record of volunteer activities belies this. Indeed, I trust you will confront and overcome pressures and problems that my generation did not have to face or did not succeed in overcoming. But our nation has never had so much influence in the world; Stanford graduates - even the liberal arts graduates - have never faced such a range of opportunities; and the future offers you greater possibilities and greater challenges than to any prior generation.

So I think that Bell's prediction, and mine, our hope, will come to pass. And your lives will tell stories that have not just a private, personal part, but a public, a community part as well. Justice Holmes at a commencement many years ago said, "That, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived." That is a better charge to each man and woman here than any I could write. I urge you to follow that advice. I greatly congratulate the Stanford Class of 1997. And I wish each of you a life of passion, action, integrity, participation - a long and most fulfilling story.