Breyer, Court Master of the 'What If?'

Court Watch Posted on

The nine justices in black robes file into the Supreme Court consumed with thoughts about the great legal issues of the day. Only one of them is likely to ask questions involving raccoons, an unruly son, pet oysters or even the dreaded "tomato children."

When Justice Stephen Breyer leans toward his microphone at the end of the bench, lawyers can expect to be asked almost anything. The 69-year-old Breyer is the court's most frequent practitioner of the hypothetical question, a conjurer of images that are unusual and occasionally bizarre.

"The last time I was up there arguing, it was easier for him to wrap his mind around bicycle pedals," said Carter Phillips. The experienced Supreme Court lawyer recalled an exchange with Breyer during arguments over patents for computer chips.

"He kept shifting the focus over to bicycle pedals and I was trying to live with him in that world," Phillips said. "I was taking the bicycle pedals and putting them on my Stair Master."

The hypothetical is a mainstay of Supreme Court arguments. At their best, such questions help justices address what is bothering them after they have pored over hundreds of pages of dense, often dry legal briefs.

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