About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for "The Supreme Court and the Peril of Politics" with Justice Stephen Breyer

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s forum examining the authority of the Supreme Court, the peril of politics, and the question of reform.

All federal employees, including my colleagues here at the National Archives and Records Administration, take an oath to not only faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which they are about to enter but to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

I took this oath in January 2010 when I became Archivist of the United States. I was honored to have it administered by Justice Stephen Breyer. In his remarks he described my new position as “I can't think of really a nobler responsibility.”

The National Archives has the noble duty of protecting and preserving the US Constitution and then displaying it year round with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, for our fellow citizens and all the world to see.


There is only one institution that is charged with interpreting the Constitution––the Supreme Court of the United States––and our guest this evening, Justice Stephen Breyer has spent 27 years doing just that.  

Stephen Breyer was born in San Francisco and is a graduate of Stanford and Oxford Universities and Harvard Law School. He taught for many years as a professor at Harvard Law School and at the Kennedy School of Government. He has also worked as a Supreme Court law clerk for Justice Arthur Goldberg, a Justice Department lawyer in the antitrust division, an Assistant Watergate Special Prosecutor, and Chief Counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee working closely with Senator Edward M. Kennedy. In 1980, he was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit by President Carter, becoming Chief Judge in 1990. In 1994, he was appointed a Supreme Court Justice by President Clinton. He has written numerous books including Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View and The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics, which was recently published and is our focus this evening.

Moderating tonight’s conversation is Tom Putnam, the Director of the Concord Museum.  It is a pleasure to welcome him back to the National Archives where he served for as the director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and as the Acting Director of the Office of Presidential Libraries.  He is a good friend, and we are pleased that he has spearheaded this partnership with the National Archives, the Kennedy Library, the Boston Globe, and Mass Humanities

The conversation with Justice Breyer was pre-recorded a few days ago, and it will be followed this evening by a live panel discussion featuring:

  • Kimberly Atkins Stohr, Senior Opinion Writer and Columnist for the Boston Globe and the former Supreme Court reporter for Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly;
  • The honorable Nancy Gertner, former United States District Court Judge who currently teaches at Harvard Law School and is a member of the Presidential Commission on the U.S. Supreme Court;
  • Jamal Greene, the Dwight Professor of Law at Columbia Law School who testified before the Presidential Commission; and
  • Dahlia Lithwick, Senior Editor for Slate where she covers the Supreme Court and host of the legal podcast, Amicus.


To set the stage for our conversation, let me quote from the introduction of Justice Breyer’s new book, The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics:  

“The Constitution creates a representative federal democracy with a separation of governmental powers both horizontal (legislative, executive, and judicial) and vertical (state and federal); equality of individuals before the law; protection of fundamental rights; and a guarantee of the rule of law. The Constitutional framers had every right to admire their document.  But as Alexander Hamilton points out in Federalist Paper 78, one branch of government must have authority to assure that the other branches act within the limits set by the Constitution. Otherwise, the document will have little effect; the framers might as well have hung it on the walls of a museum . . .  Hence, Hamilton concludes, the judicial branch and the Supreme Court in particular, who are unlikely to become too powerful, for they lack the power of the purse and of the sword, should have the last word.”

I thank you all for joining us for this virtual forum as we examine the crucial third branch of our national government that has the last word and lift the curtain on the proceedings of the Supreme Court. We will do so by hearing directly from one of its members and then in response to his remarks seek reactions from four trusted and learned colleagues. Let me conclude by expressing my personal appreciation to Justice Breyer for taking the time to write this new book––which I found informative and thoroughly engaging––and to share its lessons with us this evening.