Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on Our Need to Reevaluate the Death Penalty

Breyer discussed his new book, <em>The Court and the World</em>, at the Library Foundation’s ALOUD series Monday night

The Supreme Court had an eventful term this past year culminating with the landmark ruling to legalize same-sex marriage in June. Even so, Justice Stephen Breyer (who was part of the majority vote) doesn’t want to talk about it. On Monday night, the Justice spoke with CNN Worldwide senior legal analyst Jeffery Toobin for over an hour as part of the Library Foundation’s ALOUD series, and when he was asked about the importance of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, he said simply, “I think it’s an important decision. Yes.”

Breyer wasn’t so dodgy about other topics. He and Toobin discussed Breyer’s latest book, The Court and the World, in which he outlines why it is so important that the U.S. look to foreign law when making rulings. He said he was inspired to write the book after seeing “many more cases where you must know something about what’s going on beyond our shores to make an opinion.” He cited the 2012 case of Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons in which a student in the U.S. purchased cheap textbooks from Thailand and resold them in the States for a profit. The copyright case had global implications, prompting briefs to be filed around the world.

Breyer also spent a good portion of the night discussing the death penalty. In Glossip v. Gross, a mostly overlooked case that reaffirmed states’ rights to execute prisoners by lethal injection, Breyer and fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a 41-page dissent on the country’s need to reexamine capital punishment. His argument last night focused on the arbitrary nature the death penalty when it comes to who receives it and for what offenses. Breyer’s stance echoes an opinion that has been making headlines for years, especially as there have been over 150 people exonerated after being sentenced to death (many of whom were pardoned, acquitted, or had their charges dismissed after advances in DNA evidence were made). If people aren’t being executed in a uniform manner and innocent people are on death row, Breyer posits, perhaps there is a flaw in the system. We will have to wait until upcoming terms to see if this issue is addressed, and when it is, it may even stir up as much discussion as same-sex marriage.