“On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.”
These are probably the only words that both retired Judge Stephen Breyer and I have memorized, as they are the first few lines of the Scout Oath that he and I took as part of the Boy Scouts of America.
When I got the honor of Eagle Scout, my mom wrote to the judge to let him know and I got a lovely note, though I don’t know if it was done with an automatic pen like the ones I got from Presidents Obama. Carter and George HW Bush, as well as then Vice President Joe Biden.
On Thursday, after a day of swirling speculation, and a whole year of liberals pressing him to resign, lest he share the same fate as fellow justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Breyer announced he was leaving the Supreme Court. He has served his country in multiple ways: first in the military, then as a lawyer on the Senate Judiciary Committee, before working as a judge and then as a Supreme Court justice.
Through all the miscellaneous camping adventures, learning to tie a bowline knot (something I never really mastered) and cleaning up local parks, Boy Scouts teach their acolytes like Breyer and me something that underpins these pursuits: service to the community. community and bigger than yourself. Those principles bind you to the rest of the world like a nail knot in a piece of wood.
Certainly, with a long and distinguished career, Breyer deserves time to rest. But by stepping aside, he’s also committing one last act of service in his esteemed career: he’s showing that he recognizes that he cares more about the integrity of the court than his own status. During his speech at the White House on Thursday, he quoted George Washington, a man who chose to leave office after two terms even though he could have stayed until his death.
But remaining on the bench dressed in a gown would ultimately risk erasing all the significant advances he made as a jurist. Two of the last three justices, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who left the bench did so against their will when they died. Scalia’s death came when there was a Democratic president in office, which risked eroding everything he had worked for and shifting the balance of the court. Luckily for him, Mitch McConnell, the master obstructionist, botched Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland and allowed Donald Trump to replace him with the equally conservative Neil Gorsuch.
Ginsburg was not so lucky. Her stubborn refusal to retire in 2014, when Democrats held a majority in the Senate despite his advanced age and multiple cancer cases meant he died while Donald Trump was in office. But Democrats were in the minority in the Senate at the time and without obstruction, Trump nominated and McConnell squashed Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination.
This, of course, is not to mention Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote groundbreaking rulings on LGBTQ+ rights, only to back out when Trump was president so he could appoint Brett Kavanaugh, who could likely jeopardize those rights and the rights of women in A near future.
The Trump and Republican Senate nominations turned out to be immensely important, and their impact resonated when blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine or testing mandate. The bell also tolled for abortion rights last month when the court seemed prepared overturn Roe vs. Wade. Furthermore, the court announced will hear challenges to affirmative action, which could be his death sentence.
Breyer’s retirement changes none of this. But it does allow someone to “pick up justice,” as he said in his speech today.
In addition, his departure allows him to carry out another postulate: leave no trace and leave a better place than before, since his departure allows Joe Biden to nominate a black woman. Not a bad way to go while he’s still “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally upright,” as that oath put it.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.