Who is Stephen Breyer the Jewish Supreme Court justice who just retired?

“There is a message, and the message has something to do with tzedek, and it has something to do with tzedakah."
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 17: Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer smiles during an event at the Library of Congress for the 2022 Supreme Court Fellows Program hosted by the Law Library of Congress on February 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. Justice Breyer, who announced he will be retiring on January 27, 2022, has served on the court since 1994. His retirement creates an opportunity for President Joe Biden, who has promised to nominate a Black woman for his first pick to the highest court in the country. (Photo by Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images)

Stephen Gerald Breyer was born August 15, 1938, in San Francisco to a middle-class Jewish family with ties to Romania. Breyer officially retired from the Supreme Court at noon June 30, 2022.

Growing up Breyer attended Hebrew school and went to Jewish summer camp saying both experiences “made an impression” on him. In an interview he said his father’s beliefs shaped his world view, saying: “My favorite way of looking at things is what Hillel said: ‘If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?’ That captures it to me.”

“The heritage of law in this country is to make people’s lives better, to make certain there’s a reasonable level of social equality, to make certain people’s basic freedoms are guaranteed,” he once said. “Everyone who is a judge in the United States traces that back to the founding of this nation, and the Jews are immediately aware that it goes far further back than that.”

The “Jewish Seat”

The official portrait of Justice Stephen Breyer

Breyer was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and his departure leaves only one other Jewish Supreme Court justice, Elena Kagan. At one point during his tenure there were three Jewish justices on the bench– the most ever: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and himself.

Breyer’s seat on the Supreme Court was unofficially called the “Jewish seat” because five out of the last six justices to fill it were Jewish, starting with Louis Brandeis’ nomination in 1916 who’s hearing was filled with antisemitism. Only eight of the 115 serving justices have been Jewish. Ketanji Brown Jackson will replace Breyer on the court.

Breyer’s religion did not come up during his confirmation hearings, which he admitted in a 2005 interview was a “little surprising.”

“If you told my grandfather that there would be two Jews on the Supreme Court at the same time and nobody would make an issue of that, he would have found that to be impossible,” he said.

Jewish justice

US Court of Appeals Chief Judge Stephen Breyer (center) is sworn-in prior to his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court Associate Justice confirmation hearing, Washington DC, July 12, 1994. Looking on are US Senators Ted Kennedy (1932 – 2009) (left) and John Kerry. (Photo by Ron Sachs/CNP/Getty Images)

In 2014 Breyer, along with Kagan, spoke to thousands of Jewish leaders in Washington, D.C. for the Jewish Federations General Assembly. Breyer told the crowd that he was guided by the Torah’s emphasis on justice— tzedek, in Hebrew:

“There is a message, and the message has something to do with tzedek, and it has something to do with tzedakah, and it has something to do with social justice, and the law should work out so there is not too much injustice in the way in which it does work out. Those are things I think, those are things Elena thinks, those are things we all think.”