Even on tour to promote a book, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court might hesitate about going on late night television to be questioned by one of America’s leading humorists.
Justice Stephen Breyer set aside any such qualms Sept. 14 to match wits and words with Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show.”
The two traded arguments on the wisdom of televising the court’s proceedings. Breyer also described court conferences as reliably collegial, despite the animosity displayed in other branches of government.
“When we’re sitting around the table, I have never once heard a voice raised. The discussion is professional, it is serious, it is not personal,” Breyer said.
Breyer said he spent 11 years as the junior justice on the bench. That lowly status meant that when the court was in conference – just the justices behind closed doors – he was the one who had to rise and open the door anytime someone knocked.
Even if it was just coffee for the justices, Breyer answered the call.
Justice Antonin Scalia once remarked, “You’ve been doing this for some time.”
Breyer responded, “Yes, I know. And I’ve gotten very good at it,”
“Well, I’m not sure,” Scalia shot back.
As for televising the court, Breyer acknowledged strong arguments on both sides of the question. Keeping the focus on the law and the issues was one factor supporting a camera ban, Breyer said.
“I’m in a job where we wear black robes in part because we’re speaking for the law,” he said.
“The country doesn’t want to know the constitution according to Breyer or [Sandra Day] O’Connor. They want to know what the answer to this thing is,” Breyer continued. He said television coverage would encourage focus on personalities of lawyers and clients.
On the other hand, he said, court cameras would be “a fabulous educational process.”
“And pretty entertaining, sometimes, too,” Colbert said.
“Uh, no,” Breyer said, deadpan.
Breyer’s stint on the Late Show marked a rare Supreme Court appearance on late night network TV. Colbert also interviewed Justice Sonia Sotomayor on his cable show, “The Colbert Report,” in 2013.