Hypothetically Speaking: Justice Breyer’s Dialectical Propensities
In July of 1994, Judge Stephen Breyer testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in connection with his nomination to the Supreme Court. In responding to a question posed by Senator Howard Metzenbaum, Judge Breyer could not resist the temptation to respond by way of a hypothetical:
Let’s say—and I will use a hypothetical, I don’t like to use that here, because I know this isn’t a classroom and I know these are serious matters and I don’t like to be professorial, frankly, but I think in this instance, maybe thinking of, say, they turn this wheel around and they charged 8 cents for the electricity, and that might help. They then transmit it across a wire. They then sell it to them- selves, because they are in the retail operation, too. And they sold it, let us say, for 10 cents. So they make it for 8 cents and they sell it to themselves for 10 cents, and the price to the consumer is 10 cents. Now, the plaintiff in this case came along and said, you see, 8 cents is what we have to pay for it, because they sold a little bit to independent retailers, too, and that plaintiff was an independent retailer. And that independent retailer . . . .
In the interest of brevity, I abbreviated my quotation of the Judge’s hypothetical.
As Court watchers well know, the hypothetical (typically long and complicated) is his signature move. What prompted my thoughts on Justice Breyer and his courtroom style were some recent comments (see also here and here) made about Justice Clarence Thomas and his courtroom style. That said, I thought I would share a few examples, albeit shorter ones, of Justice Breyer’s dialectical propensities.
During the course of oral arguments in FCC v. Nextwave Communications, Inc. (2002), a statutory interpretation case, Justice Breyer ventured to make a point by way of a hypothetical:
I learned the second year of law school–and obviously many of my colleagues don’t agree with me, but I learned the second year of law school that when you have a text which says “all,” that there are often implied, not-written exceptions. . . ‘No animals in the park’ doesn’t necessarily apply to a pet oyster . . . .
Or consider another hypothetical Justice Breyer posed to Professor Randy Barnett, who represented the Respondents in Gonzales v. Raich (2004):
You know, he grows heroin, cocaine, tomatoes that are going to have genomes in them that could, at some point, lead to tomato children that will eventually affect Boston. … So you’re going to get around all those examples by saying what?
Of course, other examples might have been selected (say, Breyer’s hypotheticals in McCutcheon v. FEC), but that is an assignment for a more extended discussion. For now, it is enough to ask: How have Court watchers responded to the Justice Breyer’s style of questioning? Here are a few random samples of what I turned up in response to that question.
A former Harvard Law School professor, Breyer is the most verbose of the justices. He’s unleashed nearly 35,000 words during oral arguments since January, a transcript review shows. Repeatedly, he insists that lawyers imagine scenarios that are parallel to—or perhaps perpendicular to—the facts at hand. . . . When they work, hypothetical questions can reveal a contradiction or expose a fundamental legal principle. Of course, they don’t always work. — Michael Doyle, March 16, 2007
Breyer is the Court’s most frequent practitioner of the hypothetical question, a conjurer of images that are unusual and hyoccasionally bizarre. – Mark Sherman, March 2, 2008
During Supreme Court arguments Wednesday in a case involving claims against high-ranking government officials over post-Sept. 11 detention practices, discussion frequently turned to an unusual hypothetical scenario posed by Justice Stephen Breyer: a lawsuit over a mouse found in a bottle of Coca-Cola. Though Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. at one point called the hypothetical “by its nature particularly absurd,” he and the other justices who adopted it seemed to find it quite instructive. – Tony Mauro, December 11, 2008
Justice Breyer . . . occasionally runs the hypothetical too far out, and it becomes as complex as the underlying legal concept he is trying to make intelligible. – Lyle Denniston, December 7, 2011
Justice Breyer is notorious for asking long-winded hypotheticals in which he can occasionally get lost, and unfortunately these hypotheticals may waste an advocate’s valuable time and may not be pertinent . . . . – Ryan Malphurs, 2013
Justice Breyer offered one hypothetical and a view of the legal implications, then conceded he or his law clerk might have it wrong and would have to review the rules again. — Bob Bauer, October 9, 2013
Justice Breyer . . . is the Talmudic scholar of hypotheticals. – Art Lien, February 25, 2014
Stephen Breyer’s interminable law professor hypotheticals . . . are about drawing attention to themselves rather than helping the Court work through issues. – Scott Lemiux, February 26, 2014