|Last night at Hunter College, New York Times correspondent Linda Greenhouse interviewed Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Sandra Day O’Connor (ret.) in the first of a series of “Conversations on Presidential Leadership.” This particular forum served to introduce a partnership between the Aspen Institute and the new Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.
Eventually the events of this partnership will be held at Roosevelt House on 47/49 East 65th Street, in the double house that Sara Delano Roosevelt commissioned as a wedding gift in 1906 to her son Franklin and his new wife Eleanor Roosevelt. There was a mother-in-law’s catch to the gift: she would live in one side and her son and daughter-in-law and their family in the other. It was to this house that Franklin returned from the Hotel Biltmore on November 9, 1932, having learned that he’d been elected President of the United States. The building is now in a two to three year process of restoration and refurbishment.
More than 1500 filled the auditorium for the discussion which began at 6:45. Linda Greenhouse has been the law correspondent for the Times and is considered one of the most knowledgeable and thorough reporters on the subject. It is said that even lawyers learn from reading her dispatches.
The other problem for this reporter is that despite my so-called thirst for knowledge and infinite curiosity, I know very little about Constitutional law (less than zero) and its history. So it could be said that last night was a learning experience for me.
With those two disadvantages, I found the talk between Greenhouse and the two justices fascinating. Mr. Justice Breyer has a charming personality, like a favorite English professor -- outgoing, ebullient, reasonable and keen to articulate. Mrs. Justice O’Connor (if that is the proper term since she is retired from the Court -- although still serving on the circuit) is a plain-spoken, well informed, thoughtful woman with a down-home sense of humor. Her middle-American homespun style belies a sharp intellect. At the end of the evening someone asked for an example of a really dumb question she’s been asked on her travels. “Your question,” was her brief and immediate answer.
The two justices talked about being a judge, being a judge on the Supreme Court and the nature of the Supreme Court. I learned that although it is the highest court in the land, its power is only to interpret and judge but not to enforce. It does not have the power of the purse or the power of the sword. Justice Breyer reiterated several times that it was ultimately the voiced approval or disapproval of the majority of Americans that made the difference.
He recounted the days of Watergate when Judge Sirica ordered President Nixon to turn over the White House tapes to the Senate investigating committee. Nixon took the matter to the Supreme Court. On July 24, 1974, the Court upheld Judge Sirica, and thus the tapes were turned over. Mr. Nixon resigned from office on August 8th.
|Justice Breyer finished this anecdote last night by adding that although the Court had ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes, it had no power to make him do it. However, the matter was solved with the decision because Nixon abided by it. Many years later, Justice Breyer had a conversation about the decision with Nixon’s lawyer in the matter. The lawyer acknowledged that they’d discussed ignoring the order. It could have been done. But it was decided not to oppose because in the name of the Law. And it is the law, Justice Breyer said last night, and abiding by it that keeps the republic together. The law is the glue.
After the discussion there was a dinner for about 100 given in one of the Hunter reception rooms, hosted by Hunter’s President Jennifer Raab and attended by a variety of New York heavy hitters and opinion makers – business people, philanthropists, lawyers and such: Barbara Goldsmith, Hal and Ruth Newman, Walter Isaacson, President of the Aspen Institute; Phil Lacovara, Adam Liptak (of the Times), Wendy and Bill Luers, Fred Papert, Pete Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney, Ellen Chesler, Joan Davidson, Dick Beattie, Richard Gilder, Jason Epstein, William Mayer, chairman of the board, Aspen Institute; Jeffrey Leeds, Louis Ubinas, head of the Ford Foundation and his wife Deborah Talman who is on the faculty at Hunter, Melinda and Bill vanden Heuvel, Larry and Klara Silverstein, Jennifer and Jonathan Soros, Kimba Wood and Frank Richardson, Fred Wilpon, and Michael Goodwin who on the Hunter campus might be regarded as Mr. Jennifer Raab, but off-campus, is the highly respected political columnist for the New York Daily News and a regular guest pundit on Lou Dobbs’ nightly show.
In her words before dinner, Jennifer Raab told us 43% of Hunter’s student body are people who are from more than 143 countries and speak more than 100 languages. It is indeed an international college which is articulating the American dream. The Roosevelt House was dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1943 with the words that: “No house(s) could have a better background for the use they will now serve. Always in both houses there was an effort to look on all human beings with respect, and to have a true understanding of the points of view of others.”