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Read Justice Breyer's remarks on retiring and his hope in the American 'experiment'

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer formally announces his retirement at the White House on Thursday.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer formally announces his retirement at the White House on Thursday.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer formally announced his retirement Thursday. At an event with President Biden at the White House, Breyer, who served for more than two decades on the nation's highest court, appeared to acknowledge some of the challenges facing the country during his remarks. He quoted extensively from the Gettysburg Address and professed hope in the future of the "experiment" of U.S. democracy.

"My grandchildren and their children, they'll determine whether the experiment still works," Breyer said. "And of course, I am an optimist, and I'm pretty sure it will."

Read and watch Breyer's full remarks below.

Thank you, Mr. President. That is terribly nice. And believe me, I hold it right here. It's wonderful. And I thought about what I might say to you and I'd like to say — so, something I enjoy is talking to high school students, grammar school students, college students, even law school students. And they'll come around and ask me, "What is it you find particularly meaningful about your job? What sort of gives you a thrill?" And that's not such a tough question for me to answer. It's the same thing. Day one, almost up to, day, I don't know how many.

But what I say to them is look, I sit there on the bench and after we hear lots of cases, and after a while, the impression — it takes a while, I have to admit — but the impression you get is, as you well know, this is a complicated country. There are more than 330 million people and my mother used to say it's every race, it's every religion — and she would emphasize this — and it's every point of view possible.

And it's a kind of miracle when you sit there and see all those people in front of you, people that are so different in what they think. And yet they've decided to help solve their major differences under law. And when the students get too cynical, I say, go look at what happens in countries that don't do that.

And that's there; I can't take this around in my job. People have come to accept this Constitution, and they've come to accept the importance of a rule of law.

And I want to make another point to them. I want to say look, of course people don't agree. But we have a country that is based on human rights, democracy and so forth. But I'll tell you what Lincoln thought, what Washington thought and what people today still think: it's an experiment. It's an experiment. That's what they said.

And Joanna paid each of our grandchildren a certain amount of money to memorize the Gettysburg Address. And the reason — what we want them to pick up there and what I want those students to pick up, if I can remember the first two lines, is it "for four score and seven years ago, our fathers created here a new country, a country that was dedicated to liberty and the proposition that all men are created equal, conceived in liberty," those are his words, "and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." He meant women, too.

"And we are now engaged in a great civil war to determine whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

See, those are the words I want to see: an experiment. And that's what he thought. It's an experiment.

And I found some letters that George Washington wrote where he said the same thing: It's an experiment. That experiment existed then because even the liberals in Europe, you know, they're looking over here, and they're saying that great idea in principle, but it'll never work. But we'll show them it does. That's what Washington thought. And that's what Lincoln thought. And that's what people still think today.

And I say, I want you — and I'm talking to the students now — I say, I want you to pick just this up. It's an experiment that's still going on. And I'll tell you something: you know who will see whether that experiment works? It's you, my friend. It's you mister high school student. It's you, mister college student, it's you mister law school students. It's us, but it's you. It's that next generation and the one after that. My grandchildren and their children. They'll determine whether the experiment still works. And of course, I am an optimist, and I'm pretty sure it will.

Does it surprise you that that's the thought that comes into my mind today? I don't know. But thank you.

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