Breyer: Quick Study, Solution-Finder but Absent-Minded Professor, Red Sox Fan Are Part of Picture

By Aaron Epstein and Charles Green 1994, Knight-Ridder Newspapers | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 14, 1994 | Go to article overview

Breyer: Quick Study, Solution-Finder but Absent-Minded Professor, Red Sox Fan Are Part of Picture


Aaron Epstein and Charles Green 1994, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


THOSE WHO KNOW Stephen G. Breyer best say he is terrifically smart, quick-witted, and so scrupulously fair and open-minded that he can listen carefully to warring advocates and come up with an ingenious solution that makes them think they won.

That's why he's headed for the Supreme Court.

But Breyer is also a rumpled, regular guy who rode to work on a rickety three-speed bike with only one gear working and wore a suit for almost six months without noticing, as nearly everyone else did, that it was ripped near the armpit.

He loves gourmet food, good wine, Trivial Pursuit and old movies. He nailed a Humphrey Bogart poster on his office wall at Harvard Law School, lapsed into silent mourning when the Boston Red Sox lost the 1986 World Series, and squatted on the floor at a law clerk's party to join the guests in cutting out paper valentines.

If it isn't clear by now, this clearheaded, leading intellect of the law - who made the highest grades at three top-drawer universities, taught anti-trust and economic regulation at Harvard, and now heads the federal appeals court for four New England states and Puerto Rico - shares some of the attributes of the proverbial absent-minded professor.

Even his wife, Joanna, a London-born clinical psychologist, says so.

She tells the story of the day he was working on the boiler in the cellar of their home in Cambridge, Mass. Suddenly, one of the pipes sprung a leak and Breyer went upstairs to look for something, maybe a tool.

"Then he remembered something else he was supposed to be doing. He got in the car and drove away. He was gone for two hours," she confided in a Boston Globe interview in 1980. When he returned, she recalled, there was 4 inches of water on the cellar floor.

On another occasion, Breyer was supposed to bring an oyster dish to a contributory gourmet dinner. He remembered the oysters, but they resisted his efforts to shuck them with a screwdriver. So he arrived at dinner with a bloody hand and unopened oysters.

But from his earliest school days, there never was any doubt of Breyer's mental superiority and academic achievement.

Born in San Francisco on Aug. 15, 1938, Breyer developed a high regard for education at an early age under the guidance of his late father, Irving D. Breyer, a respected counsel for the San Francisco School Board.

Breyer studied philosophy at Stanford University and graduated in 1959 "with great distinction," which indicates he was in the top 5 percent of his class.

He headed for Oxford University as a Marshall scholar, studying philosophy, politics and economics and again meriting top honors. Then it was off to Harvard Law School, where he was known as a quick study with a broad range of interests, served as articles editor for the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude in 1964.

"He always mastered the materials immediately," said Stephen Kass, a New York attorney who was Breyer's roommate for a year. "It took him a lot less time than it took the rest of us."

Economic regulation appealed to Breyer because "Steve has always been interested in the intersection of ideas and the practical world," recalled Stephen Kass, a lawyer in New York who was Breyer's roommate for a year. Indeed, from that time to now, anti-trust law and government regulation have consumed much of Breyer's academic life. He has written four books and more than a dozen articles on those subjects.

As a newly minted lawyer, Breyer clerked for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg for a year, then worked in the Justice Department's Anti-trust Division and returned to Harvard as an assistant professor in the Kennedy School of Government.

For a decade, from 1970 to 1980, he taught anti-trust, administrative law and economic regulation at Harvard Law School. Among the philosophically fractured members of the Harvard Law faculty, "Steve refused to become ideological" and attracted such broad support that there was talk of making him dean, Professor Alan Dershowitz recalled. …

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