Education Week - April 11, 2018 - 20
For Justice Breyer, a Personal Connection to School Law
Mark Walsh/Education Week
was supposed to be] three weeks.
He stayed for 40 years."
Last year, this Education Week
reporter was in San Francisco and
came across a public notice in the
newspaper of an upcoming school
board meeting in the "Irving G.
Breyer Board Meeting Room." The
city's school board had renamed the
room in honor of the longtime legal
counsel shortly after Irving Breyer's
death from cancer in 1979 at age 70.
The meeting-room reference was
a reminder of an indelible influence on Justice Breyer, who will
turn 80 in August and reach his
25th anniversary on the Supreme
Court next year. So the justice
was asked by Education Week if
he would be willing to reflect on
his father's career in education
law and his inspiration to his sons
to pursue the law. (Charles R.
Breyer, the justice's only sibling, is
a 76-year-old federal district judge
in San Francisco, now on senior, or
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP-File
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT:
U.S. Supreme Court Associate
Justice Stephen G. Breyer still
wears the watch his father,
Irving G. Breyer, received in
honor of his four decades of
service as legal counsel to the
San Francisco school district.
'Where Is City Hall?'
A circa 1958 family photo of
the Breyer family shows, from
right, Stephen G. Breyer; his
father, Irving G. Breyer; his
mother, Anne A. Breyer; and his
brother, Charles R. Breyer.
Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States
The interview took place in late
March, with a hearty blaze roaring in the fireplace in the justice's
chambers as Washington's winter
refused to yield to spring.
Irving Breyer loved San Francisco politics, the justice said. "He
would have friends who lived down
the peninsula or across the Bay,
and I could never understand why
they did," Breyer said. "Why didn't
they live in the city? The city was
where things happened."
His father used to say, "If you're
going to be the legal adviser to the
school board, ... the first thing you
have to know is the answer to a geography question," the justice said.
"And people would say, 'What do
you mean, a geography question?
What question? ' He said, 'Where
is City Hall?' "
The San Francisco district enrolled about 106,000 students in
1933, compared with 80,000 when
Irving Breyer retired in 1973 and
60,000 today. It is independent of
but closely tied to the contiguous
city government. Irving Breyer no
doubt knew where City Hall was.
His father, Samuel T. Breyer, was
a member of the city's board of supervisors in the early 1930s. (It is
part of San Francisco's storied lore,
however, that Samuel Breyer had to
give up his seat when he was convicted in 1934 of grand theft in the
arrangement of a bank loan.)
Justice Breyer says his father
was lucky to have a job during the
Depression, and he repeated advice
from his father that he often mentions in public appearances: "Stay
on the payroll."
In 1936, after Irving Breyer
had served as legal adviser to the
school system for some three years,
a question arose about whether the
position was part of the civil-service
system. Irving Breyer took the civilservice test and "placed first in the
list of eligibles for the position of
law clerk with the school depart-
ment," the San Francisco Chronicle
reported at the time.
Irving Breyer was prominent
enough in the city that on Aug. 16,
1938, the Chronicle ran a short
item reporting the birth the previous day of "a 6-pound-12-and-a-halfounce son" to "Mrs. Irving Breyer."
Irving Breyer quipped to the paper
that the birth of his first son, Stephen, was well-timed. "This shows
I'm doing right by my job," the new
father said. "School starts today,
Mrs. Irving Breyer was the former Anne A. Roberts, who hailed
from St. Paul, Minn. Their son
Charles, who was born in 1941,
said in a telephone interview that
his and Stephen's mother was active in the League of Women Voters
and for a group that promoted the
"She took a more global and liberal view of politics and what government could do" than their father,
Charles Breyer said.
Much of the Breyer boys' upbringing has been well-documented.
20 | EDUCATION WEEK | April 11, 2018 | www.edweek.org
They attended public schools, including the prestigious Lowell
High School. Anne Breyer, who died
in 1971, was concerned about Stephen's bookishness and made sure
that her sons joined the Boy Scouts
and that Stephen spent a summer
abroad, in France.
Justice Breyer speaks frequently
of studying government in school
and going to Sacramento to observe
the state legislature in action. In
debate, his Lowell High team competed against the nearby St. Ignatius College Prep School team that
included Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown
Jr., who would go on to become
California governor in two very different eras. (Brown, a few months
older than Stephen Breyer, leaves
that office for good in early 2019.)
Charles Breyer said that when
he and his brother reached high
school age, their father would discuss some of the school district's
work at the dinner table.
"That's when we became aware
of the enormous pressures he was
under," Charles Breyer said. "He
had a single client. ... The client was
a seven-member school board, each
with their own agendas and ambitions."
A Range of Thorny Issues
In his 40 years as legal counsel, Irving Breyer helped steer the system
through the mundane and the unusual. Some of his actions reflect the
work of a government lawyer seeking
to guide his client on thorny issues,
some that were reflective of their era.
In 1955, the San Francisco
Chronicle reported that Irving
Breyer "took issue here yesterday
with [California] Attorney General
Edmund G. Brown's opinion banning prayers from public school
classrooms. If a prayer is nonsectarian and nondenominational,
there is no legal reason why it cannot be spoken or sung in the classroom, Irving G. Breyer advised the
Board of Education."
The elder Brown, known as Pat,
was the father of Jerry Brown, and
would himself become California
governor from 1959 to 1967. And
public school prayers would not be
prohibited by the U.S. Supreme
Court until the early 1960s.
In 1956, Irving Breyer defended
the school board when it sought to
dismiss an instructor at the City
College of San Francisco (which
was under the board's auspices)
for refusing to testify before the
U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee about whether he
had been a member of the Communist Party.
The school board's position was
that the California education code
at that time required a loyalty
oath (which the instructor had
signed) and that anyone who refused to answer legislative questions about matters such as Communist Party membership was
subject to dismissal for insubordination. The California Supreme
Court ruled that the instructor
had to be accorded greater due
process to determine his reasons
for refusing to answer the House