Stephen G. Breyer

Media Items
Personal Information
Monday, August 15, 1938
Childhood Location 
Childhood Surroundings 
Associate Justice
Nominated By 
Commissioned on 
Tuesday, August 2, 1994
Sworn In 
Wednesday, August 3, 1994
Length of Service 
21 years, 0 months, 30 days
Stephen G. Breyer
The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

President Clinton's second nomination to the Supreme Court is a man of difficult descriptions. Contradictory in many ways, Stephen Gerald Breyer defied simple classification, as a man and as a judge. The first son of a middle-class San Francisco Jewish family, Breyer eventually married into a well-established family of the British aristocracy. Though he possessed enormous wealth, he nonetheless lived a relatively simple life, riding the bus to work and mowing his own lawn. His peculiarities did not end with his personal life, but extended to his bench practice as well. As an appeals court judge, Breyer upheld parental notification for teenage abortions and rejected federal guidelines that prevented health officials at public clinics from advising abortion. A strong proponent of cutting government regulation, Breyer often justified his position, not as beneficial for business, but as being in the interest of the people. This sentimentalism could be viewed cynically. But in Breyer's case, however, these sentiments are genuine and reflect a pragmatic view with many mismatched results.

Stephen Gerald Breyer was born on August 15, 1938 in San Francisco, California. Only one generation from poverty, Breyer's middle-class family lived frugally. Breyer's father, Irving Breyer, worked as a lawyer and legal counsel for the San Francisco Board of Education. His mother, Anne, spent most of her time as a volunteer for the San Francisco Democratic Party and for the League of Women Voters. Although Breyer's parents sent him and his brother to religious school, the family did not observe their Jewish faith strictly. Instead, his parents pushed Breyer towards academic success. Anne Breyer also encouraged young Stephen to be well-rounded and avoid becoming overly bookish. She insisted that Breyer play sports even though he demonstrated little athletic ability. At a camp one summer, Breyer won the nickname Blister King for his tender feet. Still, Stephen Breyer persevered and achieved modest success. At age 12, he attained Eagle Scout and became known as the "troop brain."

Breyer and his brother attended academically prestigious Lowell High School, a magnet academy of the San Francisco public school system. In high school, Breyer participated actively in the debate team and competed against other notables such as future California governor Jerry Brown. School came easily for Breyer and he completed high school with only one B. By the time of his graduation, he accumulated many debating, math, and science awards and his class elected him as the "most likely to succeed." Both Harvard and Stanford accepted Breyer, and though Breyer preferred the former, he bowed to his parent's wishes and chose the latter. His mother had hoped to steer Breyer away from a narrow academic focus. At Stanford, Breyer achieved his mother's wishes more than she would have liked perhaps, when he was arrested for underage drinking. After Stanford, Breyer won a Marshall Scholarship to attend Oxford. There he picked up an interest in economics, which influenced his perspective as a judge. Breyer studied law at Harvard where he distinguished himself as an editor of the law review.

Justice Arthur Goldberg selected Breyer as his clerk for the 1964-65 term of the Supreme Court. Breyer helped Goldberg draft an opinion in the landmark right-to-privacy case, Griswold v. Connecticut. Although Goldberg's opinion argued for a right to privacy rooted in the Ninth Amendment, little evidence tied this belief to Breyer. After Breyer completed his clerkship at the Supreme Court, he worked in the Justice Department's anti-trust division for several years. During this time, in 1967, Breyer met his future wife, Joanna Hare, the daughter of England's Lord John Blakenham. At the time, Hare worked as an assistant in the Washington office of London's Sunday Times. Breyer married Joanna in England in an Anglican ceremony, carefully edited to remove references to Christ. His marriage greatly increased his personal wealth and Breyer soon left the Justice Department and returned to Harvard to teach regulatory law. His wife became a psychologist at Boston's Dana Farber Clinic. The Breyers enjoyed a comfortable life among the Cambridge intellectual elite and raised two daughters, Chloe and Nell, and a son, Michael. Breyer worked for a few months as an aide to Archibald Cox in the Watergate prosecutions. In 1974, Breyer accepted Massachusetts Senator Kennedy's invitation to work as legal counsel to the Judiciary Committee. In his time there, Breyer established a reputation for competence and fairness among the senators which may partially explain his smooth confirmation to the High Court years later.

During his tenure as counsel for the Judiciary Committee, Breyer worked hard to end governmental regulation of the airline industry. Breyer's complicated economic solution and efforts resulted in airline deregulation. Breyer's position and dedication already won him enough Republican supporters so that he received a seat on the federal appeals court with Ronald Reagan as president. Years later, Breyer once again influenced policy when he joined the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 1985. Sentencing guidelines became one of this century's biggest and most controversial debates in criminal justice. Breyer's work served as the basis for praise and criticism years later during his nomination. His supporters pointed to his hard work and told stories of the intensely focused Breyer forgetting to change shirts. Another story claimed that Breyer, so concentrated on his work, failed to notice that his co-workers had planted goldfish in his water cooler. His detractors, on the other hand, emphasized Breyer's technocratic tendencies and his apparent lack of focus for the common people. Among his opponents, most accused him of siding too often with the big businesses over the people in his history as a judge. Others criticized his sentencing scheme, which they alleged to have racially disparate impacts.

Still, Breyer's nomination proceeded relatively unopposed. President Clinton considered Breyer originally in his first nomination, but found Breyer dry and unfriendly, so he opted for Ruth Bader Ginsburg instead. In the second time around, Clinton picked Breyer. Breyer's supporters convinced the president that he had misjudged Breyer and urged Clinton to give him another chance. Breyer's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he once served, went off without a hitch. Only Senator Howard Metzenbaum pushed him on his pro-business stand, although Metzenbaum had gone on record for Breyer's nomination. Breyer's substantial investments posed potential conflict-of- interest problems, but the issue quickly defused. Breyer followed the path of his contemporary judges in refusing to answer questions relating to specific issues, arguing that he did not wish to bias future cases. Thus with powerful supporters in Senators Hatch and Kennedy and little opposition, Breyer became the 108th Supreme Court Justice in 1994.

Clerk Law Schoolsort icon Terms Clerked
Robin A. Lenhardt Harvard (1995) 1996
Aaron M. Panner Harvard (1995) 1996
Theodore W. Ruger Harvard (1995) 1997
Colin S. Stretch Harvard (1996) 1998
Ketanji Brown Jackson Harvard (1996) 1999
Jennifer S. Martinez Harvard (1997) 1998
Erin Glenn Busby Harvard (1998) 1999
Marc E. Isserles Harvard (1998) 1999
Tim Wu Harvard (1998) 1999
Russell K. Robinson Harvard (1998) 2000
Danielle Spinelli Harvard (1999) 2000
Michael E. Leiter Harvard (2000) 2001
John M. Golden Harvard (2000) 2002
Anne K. Small Harvard (2001) 2002
Danielle Gray Harvard (2003) 2005

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Stephen G. Breyer. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 02 September 2015. <>.
Stephen G. Breyer, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited September 2, 2015).
"Stephen G. Breyer," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed September 2, 2015,