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Justice Stephen Breyer on Reading the Constitution

Online and In-Person Program with NPR's Nina Totenberg

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Wednesday, March 27, 2024 - 7:45 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. ET
Code: 1L0575
In-person Ticket Holders: Meyer Auditorium
Freer Gallery of Art
12th & Independence Ave SW
Online Ticket Holders: Zoom
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Stephen Breyer (Photo: Fred Schilling/Supreme Court of the United States)

Registration Advisory: This program has multiple ticket options depending on your choice to attend in person at the Meyer Auditorium in Washington, DC or as an online program using Zoom. Currently, the in-person ticket option is sold out.

The ascendant judicial philosophy of textualism has recently come to dominate the Supreme Court. Textualists claim that the right way to interpret the Constitution and statutes is to read the text carefully and examine the language as it was understood at the time the documents were written, to the exclusion of other evidence and considerations.

This, however, is not the philosophy of recently retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, nor, as he explains, has it been the traditional way to interpret the Constitution since the time of Chief Justice John Marshall. Drawing from his new book Reading the Constitution: Why I Chose Pragmatism, Not Textualism, he deconstructs the textualist philosophy of the current Supreme Court’s supermajority and makes the case for a better, more traditional way to interpret the law.

Along with a statute’s or constitutional provision’s text, says Justice Breyer, judges and lawyers must also understand a law’s purposes, the values underlying it, the consequences of interpreting a text one way or another, and the workability of that interpretation in the broader legal system. He illustrates these principles by examining some of the most important cases in the Court’s recent history, including Dobbs and Bruen decisions from 2022, the reasoning and methodology of which he critiques.

Justice Breyer is joined in conversation by Nina Totenberg, NPR's legal affairs correspondent, as he examines different judicial approaches to interpreting the Constitution and the law and why he believes that textualism alone cannot and will not work.

Please note this program starts at 7:45 p.m. ET.

Online Program General Information

In-Person Program General Information

  • For in-person ticket holders, pre-signed copies of Reading the Constitution (Simon and Schuster) will be available for purchase on site.
  • Registration for in-person tickets will end by 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.
  • Refer to our health and safety information for in-person programs.