Yes, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has a Twitter account -- or "a tweeting thing," as he put it. But don't look to follow him on Twitter. Breyer said his is a private account that requires prospective followers to ask him permission - and he hasn't said yes to anyone. The 72-year-old justice said he set it up to follow the recent Iranian uprising. "Totally fascinating," said Breyer, pictured below.
This modern-day revelation was a highlight of the Court's annual budget hearing before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. As often happens, the questioning from members of Congress drifted away from budget details to other things on their mind as they seized their rare chance to interact with the Supreme Court.
It's such a unique experience that freshman member Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) asked Justice Anthony Kennedy an innocuous question, and as soon as Kennedy began to answer, Yoder (pictured at right) interrupted him. "It's always been dream of mine to interrupt a Supreme Court justice," said Yoder, a University of Kansas law grad. Mission accomplished, Yoder let Kennedy continue.
Breyer's Twitter disclosure came in answer to an off-topic question from another freshman, Rep. Steve Womack, (R-Ark.) who wondered if social media were affecting the justices' work. Kennedy followed Breyer with a safer response that the spread of information through social media was "all to the good." He added, "The law lives in the consciousness of the people."
A fresh, and more relevant topic was raised early on by the subcommittee chairwoman Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) She asked why the Court had decided last May to close its bronze front doors to the public for entry into the building. It's a touchy topic, with Justices Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joining in a statement at the time to register their dissent.
Kennedy reiterated the Court's stated reasoning that a review of security procedures led to the decision, though he acknowledged that "there is symbolism" in going up the steps and facing open front doors. But there were esthetic factors as well, he said. Entering the building into the atrium in front of the courtroom had become unpleasant and undignified, Kennedy said, in part because that area has no air-conditioning and is hot in the summer.
Diplomatically, Breyer made his answer brief, stating, "We don't always agree ... I thought we should have left the doors open." Some day, Breyer added, "things will calm down, I hope," to the point where the closing can be reconsidered.
The justices were also asked about recent suggestions that members of the Supreme Court should be required by law to adhere to the same code of conduct that covers lower federal court judges. Kennedy and Breyer both responded that the justices, by their own voluntary policy, do abide by the code promulgated by the Judicial Conference -- even though the conference only sets policy for the lower federal courts. Kennedy even said that justices can and do ask the conference's code of conduct committee for advice when ethical issues arise.
Both justices saw some problems with the idea of mandating the same ethics code for the justices. Breyer noted that recusal issues play out differently for justices, because when one justice bows out of a case, he or she cannot be replaced by anyone else -- unlike lower courts where another judge can step in.
Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) was the congressman who asked about the ethics code, and he also raised a perennial issue for him -- the Court's record of hiring relatively few minority law clerks. He asked if the Court had undertaken "any new initiatives" to recruit more minorities. Kennedy said he encourages all young law students to seek clerkships, and he does not confine his picks to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford grads. Breyer said hs efforts to recruit minority clerks had been "difficult in the beginning" when he joined the Court in 1994, and "then got easier." He started to suggest that in the last two or three years he had begun to find problems again, but he was interrupted before he could complete his answer.
And oh yes, the justices did discuss budget matters with the members of Congress. The Court is asking Congress for $75.5 million for salaries and expenses, down from last year. Nonetheless, the amount includes a plan for hiring 12 more police officers for the Court. Asked about security concerns in the wake of events like the January Tucson shooting, Kennedy replied with a tribute to Arizona Chief U.S. District Judge John Roll who died in the incident along with others. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was critically wounded. "Anytime we have an incident like that, we take a second look" at security measures, Kennedy said. Kennedy also reported that the Court's long-running renovation and modernization project will be done "very soon" and still under budget.
Photos by Diego Radzinschi