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Opinion | Stephen Breyer Was the Right Justice for the Wrong Age

Noting that the standard for granting an injunction of the sort the plaintiffs requested required a showing that the court’s intervention was in the public interest, he asked: “Is that what you’re doing now, to say it’s in the public interest in this situation to stop this vaccination rule, with nearly a million people — let me not exaggerate — nearly three-quarters of a million people, new cases every day? I mean, to me, I would find that unbelievable.”

Of course, that’s what the court did, and of course, Justice Breyer dissented.

His dissenting opinion, written with Justices Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, wasn’t particularly showy. It was, one might say, Breyeresque, using data, logic and the language of administrative law — a subject he taught for many years at Harvard Law School — to arrive at its central argument:

Underlying everything else in this dispute is a single, simple question: Who decides how much protection, and of what kind, American workers need from Covid-19? An agency with expertise in workplace health and safety, acting as Congress and the president authorized? Or a court, lacking any knowledge of how to safeguard workplaces and insulated from responsibility for any damage it causes?

That this argument failed to carry the day speaks volumes not only about how out of step Justice Breyer is with the court’s trajectory but also how out of step the majority is with the kind of fact-based analysis that he has brought to the problems the court is charged with solving.

In recent months, Justice Breyer has been mocked on the left for clinging to a romantic vision of the Supreme Court as an institution apart from politics. Surely, that argument has gone, if he could only get over that fiction and understand the political moment, he would hang up his robe.

That mistakes the man. He cut his eyeteeth in politics, working for Senator Edward Kennedy as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. I’m sure he, along with the rest of us, has watched with clear eyes and a heavy heart as politics swamped the institution he loves.

His understanding of politics — that the only way to make a difference is by staying in the game — led him to stay on the court as the diminished liberal side’s senior associate justice, a role that will now pass to Justice Sotomayor. Although he will reportedly remain on the court until the end of this term, he chose to announce his plan to retire now, just after the court finished assembling the cases it will hear and decide through late June or early July. This suggests he has the months ahead fully in view and has decided that he has made all the difference he can make.

Now it’s time to let someone else try.

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