UVA President Jim Ryan, a 1992 graduate of the Law School, presented the medal to Breyer, who announced Jan. 27 that he will retire from the court this summer after 28 years on the bench.
“Many of the ideals that Jefferson espoused remain central to the American experiment and remain at the heart of UVA, including the idea of citizen leadership and public service,” Ryan said. “Today, we honor Justice Breyer, a lifelong leader and a public servant whose devotion to upholding the values set forth in our Constitution has touched the lives of every American.”
Following the medal presentation, Law School Dean Risa Goluboff, who clerked for Breyer before joining the faculty, quizzed her former boss in a wide-ranging interview, with members of the audience also asking questions.
Throughout, Breyer made his case that people can make a difference in American democracy one improvement at a time, and by listening to each other and by finding common ground.
He pointed to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that deemed segregated schools unconstitutional. It was clear by the time the case came to the court that equal protection under the law was not being followed, Breyer said, and that segregated schools were “separate but not equal.”
Several historical events were driving toward a conclusion on segregation – from African Americans serving in World War II to the nascent civil rights movement after Brown, so the impact of the decision itself was unclear. Breyer said he once asked Vernon Jordan, a close adviser to President Bill Clinton and a lawyer who was “a hero of that movement,” whether Brown mattered.
“And he said, ‘Of course the Supreme Court mattered. Just don’t think they did it by themselves,’” Breyer said.