Former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer Says He's 'Still an Optimist' in First Appearance Since Retirement

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President Joe Biden speaks with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer after delivering the State of the Union in the U.S. Capitol House Chamber on March 1, 2022 in Washington, DC
President Joe Biden speaks with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer after delivering the State of the Union in the U.S. Capitol House Chamber on March 1, 2022 in Washington, DC

Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty President Joe Biden speaks with Justice Stephen Breyer after delivering the State of the Union in 2022

On Saturday evening former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, 83, made his first public appearance since retiring from America's highest court. He opened his speech to lawyers at the American Bar Association Conference in Chicago with a joke aimed at himself, "I've written 525 opinions — but why is the world such a mess?"

Reflecting on the country's current political and social landscape, Breyer said, "I think over long periods of time we have in America a system that has adjusted — with its drawbacks and its going-the-wrong way from time to time."

"But overall, I'm still an optimist," he added.

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In the speech, Breyer recalled speaking with a judge about the rule of law. "This has not been a country of sheer ups you know," he recounted telling the judge, adding, "but gradually we try ... if this generation doesn't, the next one might."

His speech didn't speak to the specifics of the court's most recent rulings, including overturning Roe v. Wade, but touched more broadly on the importance of lawyers analyzing legal decisions. "You have a growing body of doctrine ... which we hope, as Martin Luther King (said), arcs towards justice. It doesn't always, but we hope," he said.

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Breyer was awarded the ABA Medal, the association's highest honor. Past recipients of the honor include Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Thurgood Marshall, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

After serving 28 years on the bench, Breyer retired in June. His seat was filled by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.