Opening Statements

Breyer Flunks School of Rock


It had all the makings of a Cinderella story for the legal profession: a second year law student, his favorite radio quiz show and a U.S. Supreme Court justice playing on the aspiring young lawyer’s behalf. But this fairy tale proved fleeting for University of Missouri Kansas City law student James Hayes after Justice Stephen G. Breyer proved that, while he may be a constitutional scholar, he’s no rock ’n’ roll historian.

In March the justice appeared on National Public Radio’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, where Breyer took a stab at answering some screwball questions about the habits of some even screwier musicians during the show’s “Not My Job” segment. (The show is archived at npr.com.)

Breyer is but the latest notable guest to have endured the good-natured indignities that come with the territory of the raucous quiz show. Others who have appeared include U.S. Sen. John McCain, cellist Yo Yo Ma and CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer.

“But none of them have the power to sign away, or substantially augment, our civil liberties,” notes the show’s host, Peter Sagal.

While the stakes weren’t exactly high–had Breyer answered two of three questions correctly, Hayes would have gotten a personalized answering machine message from NPR’s Carl Kasell–Hayes says knowing that a Supreme Court justice was playing on his behalf was the kind of thing most law students can only dream about. He credits the e-mail he wrote to NPR asking to be the contestant for whom Breyer was playing as what cinched the deal for him. “I said that I am a law student, and that being the contestant would probably be the highlight of my career,” he says.

Breyer’s participation was also a highlight for the show’s hosts. Says Sagal: “Is there any comic who doesn’t dream of putting ridiculous questions to a sitting Supreme Court justice?”

Getting Breyer to participate took a bit of negotiation, though. According to Sagal, one of the show’s producers met Breyer’s sister-in-law, and the idea for his appearance was born. But Breyer needed a bit of reassurance and turned to NPR legal reporter Nina Totenberg and the Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin before agreeing to go on the show. “I wanted to check because I wanted to know what I was getting into,” says Breyer.

Though Breyer handled all the questions thrown at him with a sense of humor, in the end he failed to answer any of them correctly. (If they had been about ’50s pop music, though, Breyer says the outcome might have been different.)

Aside from revealing that he is not exactly up on the quirky habits of the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Ozzy Osbourne, Breyer did let slip a few interesting tidbits about the inner workings of the high court: That the court has a cafeteria committee that he once headed. That he still wears the same robe he bought 25 years ago in Boston. And that Justice Antonin Scalia is a funny guy.

So does Hayes think Breyer owes him anything–say, a clerkship–over ruining the highlight of his legal career?

“Given the opportunity, I would follow up. And I’d definitely bring more rock ’n’ roll knowledge to the court. But I don’t know if I’ll be following up on that,” Hayes says. Indeed, he already has a summer gig: He’s clerking for the appellate division of the Missouri public defender’s office.

Breyer, for his part, must have felt the need to redeem himself in the eyes of this earnest young law student. After the show, he sent Hayes a note along with a signed copy of the Constitution.

“I hope he will take in what it means to so many millions of Americans,” says Breyer of his reason for sending the document. “I wish him luck in his career.” As for Hayes, it was more than enough. “I think I’ll frame the note,” he says, “and carry the Constitution in my coat pocket for good luck whenever I go to court.”

Sidebar

Think you can beat Breyer?

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer hit a sour note when he tried to answer these rock trivia questions, pulled from a Blender magazine article about the 50 craziest pop stars of all time. How do you measure up?

  1. David Bowie became so paranoid in the ’70s that:

A. He tried to exorcise Satan from his own swimming pool.

B. He refused to eat anything before his personal bodyguard held it in his own mouth just for a second.

C. He refused to go near a microphone for two months because he thought aliens were stealing his voice.

  1. Iggy Pop, the lead singer of the Stooges, did what for an entire year?

A. He refused to wear a shirt anywhere he went.

B. He ate nothing but German sausages.

C. Spoke only in rhyme.

  1. Ozzy Osbourne did what when he once checked himself in to the Betty Ford Clinic?

A. He immediately asked for directions to the bar.

B. He propositioned Liza Minnelli, who happened to be walking by.

C. Ate two plastic pieces of fruit from a table centerpiece.

ANSWERS: A, B, A. And to those who know their rock we salute you!

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