Why Of Course Justice Stephen Breyer Has a Pocket Constitution

The witty Supreme tries not to answer too many questions.

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Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer holds up a copy of the United States Constitution as he speaks at Boston University School of Law in Boston, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer believes cameras will someday make their way into the courtroom.

Justice Stephen Breyer proved he was a walking Supreme Court stereotype Tuesday night. Midway through quoting Alexander Hamilton and talking up the Federalist Papers, he pulled out his pocket Constitution.

"I do, I carry it around, because that's the job," he told a crowd gathered at the National Archives.

"No, Hamilton did not autograph my constitution," he added, when moderator Akhil Reed Amar asked Breyer to decipher what was scribbled on the small book.

"It's my grocery list," the justice joked. (It was actually notes he made for a speech he gave at the Brookings Institution.)

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Breyer spent most of the evening craftily dodging questions.

"Everyone in the country, virtually everyone, has the freedom of speech, but the judges...that is the price you pay," he said, explaining why he kept his lips sealed on so many issues. When asked about the Senate confirmation process for Supreme Court Justices, Breyer noted that he was not the one to do the confirming.

"I was the person who was nominated," said Breyer, who's served on the court since President Bill Clinton appointed him in 1994.

"That's like asking for a recipe for chicken a la king from the point of view of the chicken," he cracked.

There were a couple of interesting things that Breyer did answer. First, he said he thought that cameras would eventually make their way into the courtroom. Currently, Supreme Court proceeding are not televised.

"I'm not in the generation that's grown up with it to that point -- I actually can remember radio," he said. "That will change and eventually people will be on the court that grew up with nothing but that and I believe it will change and probably they'll come in."

Second, he offered this interesting anecdote about partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill.

"Lamar Smith, who's a Republican, who's the chair of the House Judiciary Committee asked would I come over and talk," Breyer recalled. "I thought he wanted to talk about the court."

Before Breyer was Justice Breyer, he was the chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a position he held under chair, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

"So I walk into the room and there's a lot of people there from both parties," he continued. "I said to the chairman, 'well, what should I do? Tell them about how the court works?'"

Smith's answer was no.

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"We want you here because we want to know how Sen. Kennedy ran the Judiciary Committee," Breyer recalled Smith saying. The House committee wanted to know how things were done during a less partisan time, Breyer acknowledged.

"There's no doubt the will is there," Breyer said of bipartisanship. "It's a question of finding the way."

Finally, the justice proved that he was like many a member of the audience.

"I tried The New York Times dialect test," Breyer offered, referring to The New York Times quiz, "How Ya'll, Youse and You Guys Talk," which was very popular online last month.

The admission got great laughs. His results? Bakersfield, Fresno and Seattle, which surround his actual hometown of San Francisco.

"You can't get rid of that California," Breyer said.

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