Supreme Court justices convene with European counterparts

Justice Stephen Breyer, center, speaks of the role of the European Court of Human Rights and the U.S. Supreme Court in their respective judicial and political systems Thursday during a panel discussion in Jack Morton Auditorium. Delaney Walsh | Hatchet Photographer

This post was written by Hatchet staff writer Matthew Kwiecinski.

The GW Law School hosted the first-ever panel discussion between members of the Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights in Jack Morton Auditorium Thursday, focusing on issues that both legal bodies face.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Judge Lech Garlicki of the European Court of Human Rights took part in a one-on-one dialogue, moderated by Legal Adviser to the U.S. State Department Harold Koh. The discussion, which lasted about two hours, covered topics from religion in the public sphere to human rights issues like abortion and gay marriage.

“Religion is very hard to compromise, given that there are 50 different religions in the United States alone,” Breyer said in response to a discussion about a ruling in the European Court regarding crucifixes in Italian schools. “You have to identify the interests that you are trying to protect.”

Breyer, considered part of the high court’s liberal wing, was appointed by former President Bill Clinton in 1994.

When asked whether the judges worried about the progress of human rights, the 73-year-old said he narrowed his concern to individual cases.

A video message from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was presented before the discussion began.

“Today’s conference provides an important opportunity for justices and scholars to address issues that affect these two courts and judicial systems the world over,” she said. “The United States and Europe share deeply rooted, common convictions about the importance of advancing democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental human rights.”

The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, France, is the judicial arm of the European Convention on Human Rights and is not part of the European Union.

Derek Walton, legal counselor to the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, compared the two court systems in a dialogue with J. Christopher McCrudden, a professor of human rights and equality law at Queen’s University Belfast.

“There are three areas of difference, including the nature of the judicial system, the nature of instrument of interpretation and the function that is called on to perform,” Walton said. “I don’t see it as a problem that courts argue differently. They are each respected for their different roles.”

In closed sessions Thursday, Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor also joined European judges and legal experts to discuss freedom of expression and institutional challenges. Eight of the nine justices on the bench have visited campus in the past year.

Dean Paul Schiff Berman said these events prove the law school’s immersion in the legal world.

“One thing that the academic arena should be able to provide is a neutral, non-partisan forum for discussion and debate for advancement of sort of connections that lead to actual solutions in the world,” Berman said.

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