PARIS – Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who has worked hard to perfect his French in his spare time, was inducted on Monday as a foreign member of the France's Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, one of the five academies of the Institut de France.
The academy's membership is limited to 50 French men and women and 12 foreign associated members; Justice Breyer was chosen to replace Otto von Habsburgh, the last crown prince of Austria-Hungary and later a noted European-minded legislator, who died in July 2011.
Justice Breyer joins a very small line of American members dating to Thomas Jefferson. Other foreign members include the former Pope Benedict XVI, Prince Charles of Britain, King Juan Carlos of Spain and the novelist Ismail Kadare. Vaclav Havel was a member until his death, as was Ronald Reagan.
"The event is a recognition by a great institution of France of the institution to which I belong, the Supreme Court," Justice Breyer said after the ceremony on Monday. "Our institutions flow from the enlightenment, and we've always seen our institutions working together."
Under the famous elliptical cupola of the institute's main hall in Paris, with French members dressed in waistcoats embroidered in green and gold, Justice Breyer heard a long speech praising his career and discussing the American judicial system, then gave his own speech in rigorous, carefully enunciated French.
After praising the life and work of Mr. von Habsburgh, as is the tradition, Justice Breyer spoke of his own faith in the law and his efforts to "defend and advance the rule of law." He described the changing nature of the cases coming before the Supreme Court, noting that more of them these days center on "the conflict between national security and the protection of the fundamental rights of the individual."
And more of them, he said, had implications beyond national borders, both in the commercial realm and in the rights of citizens. This year alone, he said, he counted seven such cases on an overall list of 80, "but 20 years ago, I would have counted only one or two."
Consequently, Justice Breyer said, it was necessary to be better informed about the law and judicial practices of other countries. "We live in a world where this type of knowledge is no longer a luxury but a daily necessity,"' he said. "Our effort to maintain the rule of law demands it."
Justice Breyer, 74, was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton and took his seat in 1994. He discussed the extraordinary acceptance that the court's rulings have come to have in the United States, citing the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated schools in Arkansas with the help of the 101st Airborne Division, and Bush v. Gore, which decided the 2000 election (although Justice Breyer wrote a dissent in that case).
"In the United States," he said, "more than 300 million citizens have had to learn to live together. After slavery, a terrible civil war, 80 years of racial segregation and many other horrors, judges, lawyers and ordinary citizens have learned to overcome the tests of a history that has convinced them, little by little, of the necessity to have confidence in the law, and not in force, to resolve their differences."
The result, he said, is inevitably "a compromise, an agreement that remains fragile."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.