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Justice Breyer’s legal career has strong ties to Massachusetts

Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer (center) received an honorary degree during Convocation and Dedication ceremonies for the new home of Suffolk University Law School in Boston in 1999.BLANDING, John GLOBE STAFF

Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer plans to retire from the nation’s highest court, the AP reported Wednesday.

Here’s a look at some notable highlights from the career of the 83-year-old jurist, a Harvard Law graduate whom then-President Clinton tapped for the high court in 1994.

Early career - Breyer clerked for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg in 1964, his official SCOTUS biography says, and later joined the Watergate prosecution team, serving in 1973 as assistant special prosecutor of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, whose work ultimately prompted Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Massachusetts ties - Breyer taught for many years at his alma mater Harvard Law, serving as an assistant professor, professor of law, and lecturer there between 1967 and 1994, the bio says.

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He also taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government from 1977 to 1980, the site says, and he joined the federal appellate bench in Boston in 1980, when he began a 14-year stretch on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, including four years as chief judge from 1990 to 1994.

He was so well-liked by both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and archconservatives, that he was quickly confirmed as a federal judge in 1980 — even after former president Jimmy Carter, who nominated him to the appeals court, lost his reelection bid.

As chief judge, he oversaw the design and construction of the new federal courthouse in Boston, a project his friends said he was thrilled to work on, owing to an abiding passion for architecture.

“In the past two years, I have been to courthouses in nine of the 12 circuits across the country,” Breyer said in 1988, when pushing for a new Boston federal building. “And the Boston courthouse is at the bottom of the list: and whichever one I would categorize as next is significantly better in terms of facilities.”

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Kennedy ties - Breyer served as special counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1974 to 1975, and as the panel’s chief counsel from 1979 to 1980.

The committee chair was Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and the Globe described Breyer as a “protege” of the liberal lawmaker when Clinton nominated him to the high court. The paper reported at the time that Kennedy talked with Clinton several times during the days leading up to the announcement.

And in a statement at the time, Kennedy repeated his longstanding praise for Breyer as a legal scholar with a deep and abiding commitment to the Constitution and to protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of all Americans.” Kennedy predicted Breyer would be “enormously influential and effective” on the high court.

Bob Dole, then the Senate Republican Leader from Kansas, also praised Breyer at the time of his nomination, calling him “a top-notch intellect and a person of integrity.”

Earlier in 1980 when Breyer was tapped for the federal appeals court, Kennedy credited him with “almost singlehandedly” pushing legislation that resulted in the deregulation of the nation’s airline industry, the Globe reported at the time.

Kennedy cited Breyer’s advocacy on that front as an example of “the remarkable way in which one able individual, acting alone at first, can rally allies to his side and achieve a worthwhile change.”

The Globe reported in December 1980 when Breyer took his seat on the appellate bench that Kennedy said he never doubted Breyer would be confirmed.

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“The people I rely on for counsel told me he would be confirmed, just like they told me I would win the Democratic presidential nomination,” Kennedy quipped during a speech to mark the occasion.

Notable opinions - Among Breyer’s notable opinions as high court justice are his 2014 opinion in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, which clarified the president’s “limited role” in making recess appointments, as well as his 2000 opinion in Stenberg v. Carhart, which held that a Nebraska law limiting abortion was unconstitutional, according to the Philadelphia-based Constitution Center’s website.

More recently, Breyer in November 2021 declined to block Mass General Brigham from enforcing a mandate requiring employees of the state’s largest hospital system to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report, and Jeremiah Manion of the Globe Staff contributed.




Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.