Justice Breyer and Other Luminaries Discuss Human Rights

April 22, 2014 —

How far have humans progressed in the field of human rights — and what are the challenges for the future? Those were the questions posed by Georgetown Law Professors Rosa Brooks and David Cole to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, retired Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela Karlan and other guests in an April 21st conversation at the Law Center. 

In the United States, Cole noted, we don’t talk much about international human rights, whereas in South Africa, for example, the Constitution expressly borrows from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To what extent does it matter that our country has a domestic rights tradition as opposed to an international one?

 “If I were an ordinary citizen,” said Breyer, “I would say, I don’t care what the source of the right is. I do care about whether I can say what I want. I do care about people not putting me in jail arbitrarily. I do care about having some kind of protection for unpopular ideas … but I don’t care about the source.” Judges might think differently, he added, noting that in a constitutional question, he looks to the words of that document and to its amendments.

Brooks asked Karlan why the notion of civil rights seems easier to grasp in this country than international human rights. “Just as a historical accident, we stick with the language that brought us here,” Karlan said, adding that we can’t expect a federal court to give us a human right that’s not in a constitution or statute. 

Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, provided introductions, along with Dean William M. Treanor and Visiting Professor Andrew Schoenholtz, director of the Human Rights Institute. The event celebrated not only the Review — co-founded by Silvers more than 50 years ago — but also the life of the late NYU Law Professor Ronald Dworkin, one of the Review’s prolific contributors. Several panelists, including Cole and Breyer, have also written for the publication.

Panelists also discussed socioeconomic rights and the importance of the rule of law, as well as the concept of human rights as universal rights, ones that apply to everyone.

“I was told when I joined the Court, don’t just talk to your contemporaries,” Breyer noted. “Talk to your grandchildren, their friends, artists, movie makers, painters, writers. Because they will tell you what’s going on — you won’t know. And your job will be … to take values that are universal and come from the past … but apply them to this world.”

For a full list of participants and sponsors, click here. 

A webcast will be available here. A C-SPAN video of the panel moderated by Professor Brooks is available here and the panel moderated by Professor Cole is available here.