March 23, 2007
Anna Christopher, NPR




March 23, 2007; Washington, D.C. – Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is put in the hot seat on the popular NPR news quiz show, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!®, airing this weekend. The first sitting member of the nation’s highest court to appear on the show, Justice Breyer is the special guest on the program’s “Not My Job” segment, for which he is quizzed on the lifestyles of rock ‘n’ rollers.

Said Peter Sagal, host of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!: “Despite his distinguished and august position, Justice Breyer reveals himself to be a man who puts on his judicial robes one velvet-hemmed head-hole at a time.”

In addition to taking the quiz, Justice Breyer shares some thoughts with Sagal and the panelists on judicial robe shopping, the inner workings of the Court’s cafeteria committee, and who holds the title of “funniest justice” with one caveat: “the most humorous of the Supreme Court justices is like being one of the shortest tall people.”

“Justice Breyer shows what it takes to be a distinguished Supreme Court justice: an almost otherworldy patience while dealing with people who aren’t as smart as he is,” says Sagal.

Now in its ninth year, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! offers a contemporary and sometimes raucous twist on the old-time radio quiz show, mining NPR news stories for its quiz questions. The program is hosted by Peter Sagal, an award-winning playwright, and features popular NPR newscaster Carl Kasell as official judge and scorekeeper. Justice Breyer’s appearance on the program airs this weekend, March 24 and 25, on NPR member stations nationwide. (For stations and broadcast times, visit The program will also be available as a free podcast on

Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! airs on more than 400 NPR member stations, reaching 2.3 million listeners weekly. It has also ranked among the “Most Downloaded” podcasts on iTunes and other directories since its launch in February 2006.

The show is produced by NPR and Chicago Public Radio; Doug Berman is Executive Producer.


(Note: This is an unedited transcript. Portions will be broadcast during Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!.)

PETER SAGAL: And now the game where extremely accomplished people come on to answer questions about trivial things. We call the game “Not My Job.” I have to admit I’m a little uncertain of the protocol that applies to our guest this week, but just to be on the safe side, everybody listening to the radio right now, if you could all please rise. (Laughter.) All right, thank you.

Ladies and gentlemen, joining us from the chambers of the United States Supreme Court, please welcome Associate Justice Stephen Breyer. (Applause.)

Justice Breyer, thank you so much for being with us.

JUSTICE BREYER: Oh, thank you.

MR. SAGAL: Now, I have to tell you that as soon as it was announced that you were going to be joining us to play this game, the question went up from a concerned nation, which is why would a man such as you ever do such a thing like this? (Laughter.) So let me put it to you, why would a man – not that I’m not grateful, but why would a man like you do such a thing as this?

JUSTICE BREYER: Well, it was my sister-in-law who wanted me to do it, and I wanted peace in the family. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: I understand.

JUSTICE BREYER: I also rather like old-time radio programs. When I was a boy I used to listen to “The Lone Ranger” and various other programs, you know, so I have a fond recollection of that.

MR. SAGAL: Good. Quick, Mo, do your hoof beats. (Laughter.)

JUSTICE BREYER: They use coconuts. You know, they use –

MR. SAGAL: Oh, yeah. That’s good. That’s good.

PAULA POUNDSTONE: Don’t give it away.

MR. SAGAL: Okay. (Laughter.) But it seems as if – I mean, Supreme Court justices do have a reputation for being private and not making public appearances, not making public statements. You’ve gone out and you’ve done your share, though, of public outreach.

JUSTICE BREYER: That’s true. I try, when I can – I want to explain what we do on the court – I mean, what we do in the daytime. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: Right. Well, in fact, we wanted to ask you about that. I mean, it’s probably true, certainly now in the age of C-SPAN and such, that your branch of government is the most still austere, a little bit mysterious. I don’t have any idea what it’s like in there. I picture it like a big meeting table in the “Justice League of America” cartoons. (Laughter.) Big, round, and you all have like motorized chairs and lots of good lighting. Is that what it’s like in your –

(Cross talk.)

JUSTICE BREYER: Oh, we don’t have motorized chairs. That’s common knowledge – (laughter) – that I think we don’t have those.

MR. SAGAL: You don’t have motorized chairs.

JUSTICE BREYER: No, no, we don’t. But it is a big room, and we do have a table in the conference room –


JUSTICE BREYER: – and we listen to the lawyers, and the cases are pretty difficult. And we read the briefs and we listen to the oral argument and we discuss them and we eventually write opinions. The job is mostly writing and reading.

MR. SAGAL: Do you actually gather as a court and argue it out?


MR. SAGAL: You do?

JUSTICE BREYER: I’ve now been a member of the court for more than 12 years and we’ve had some pretty difficult cases, and sometimes contentious, and I’ve never heard in that conference room, ever – I’ve never heard a voice raised in anger. I’ve never heard one member of the court say anything mean about some other member, not even as a joke. It’s very professional. We’re very well prepared. We think hard about this. We’re not always right, by any means, but I think people do their best, and it works, I think, pretty much the way it’s supposed to.

LUKE BURBANK: Um, Your Majesty – (laughter) – what can you do about parking tickets? (Laughter.)

JUSTICE BREYER: That’s very disappointing. I can’t do anything about it, and I have to watch very hard to obey the speed limit. (Laughter.)

MR. BURBANK: I mean my parking tickets, actually. (Laughter.)

JUSTICE BREYER: Your parking tickets.

MR. SAGAL : We were reading about your career in the court and it seems that until the recent appointment of Justice Roberts – Chief Justice Roberts – you were the junior member –


MR. SAGAL : – of the Supreme Court for a long time, and that means you had particular tasks, right?

JUSTICE BREYER: Yeah, I did. I had – as a junior member, when we’re in the conference room, if somebody knocks on the door, I open it. (Laughter.)


JUSTICE BREYER: Yeah, I did it for 12 years. (Laughter.) One day, in fact, I said – I think about a year or two ago – somebody had knocked on the door, which was unusual. Somebody had coffee for Justice Scalia. And I brought it – I opened the door and I brought it in. And he said, well, you have been doing this for a long time. Yes. I said, 12 years. I’ve gotten very good at it. (Laughter.) He said, no, you haven’t actually. (Laughter.)

MR.SAGAL: Did he then send you back because you didn’t use nonfat creamer or something?

JUSTICE BREYER: No, it was all right. It was all right. It was only a joke.

MS. POUNDSTONE: I’m sure that it is very professional and not rancorous or anything, just the way that you’ve described, but given that that’s been your role as the junior justice, especially when you first took that position, was there ever a time when people would knock underneath the table and pretend it was the door? (Laughter.)

JUSTICE BREYER: No, but, you know, when Justice Alito took over, for at least two or three months the door would knock; I’d jump up.

MR. SAGAL : Well, I was thinking about that –

JUSTICE BREYER: It was like Pavlov and the dog. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL : Because of course, a little bit – about two years ago when Justice Roberts was first nominated, you must have been, finally; finally somebody else will have to open the darn door. And then of course, with the passing the Justice Rehnquist, he was nominated to be chief justice and they bypassed it and you were still the junior guy again. That must have been –

JUSTICE BREYER: No, actually, interestingly enough, I sort of thought maybe I’d get the world’s record as the longest-serving junior justice. I missed it by about, I think, only a few weeks, and I could’ve gone down in history as the answer to a trivia question. (Laughter.)


MS. POUNDSTONE: Wow. Wow. Now, when the new –

MR. BURBANK: Now you’ll just have to be known as a Supreme Court justice. (Laughter, applause.)

MR. SAGAL : Yeah, exactly.

MS. POUNDSTONE: Boy, that sucks, huh?

MO ROCCA : How come you guys are so humorless during the State of the Union address, like when the camera pans?

MR. SAGAL: That’s true, you never applaud or smile –

MR. ROCCA : – or smile –

MR. SAGAL: – or react in any way.

JUSTICE BREYER: Well, we can’t – it’s like the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It’s sometimes political in what they say and we don’t want to say or appear to be taking sides on anything political.

MR. ROCCA : Oh, the Joint Chiefs are a laugh riot in comparison. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: Speaking of laughter, something else we wanted to ask you about: We found that there have been two studies, two distinct studies, one by the New York Times, one by an independent court observer. These were studies of who is the funniest member of the Supreme Court. And the New York Times study compared a period of time. They found that, looking at the transcripts, they looked for the words “laughter” after comments by justices. You had 28 big laugh lines. Scalia –


MR. SAGAL: Scalia only had 25. The other guy, different period of time, Scalia had 77; you only had 45.

JUSTICE BREYER: Well, I’m not sure – they must not have much to do with their time, but the – (laughter) – being sort of the most humorous of the Supreme Court justices is like being one of the shortest tall people. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: So, I mean, you don’t feel a rivalry? You don’t like consider –


MR. SAGAL: – arguments; you don’t read the briefs and go, oh, wow, I can riff on that principle? (Laughter.)


MR. SAGAL: I’m going to kill with –

MR. ROCCA : Oh, yo momma contest; I love that.

JUSTICE BREYER: That’s the reporters’ invention.

MR. SAGAL: Now, be that as it may, you must have enjoyed yourself a little bit with the case this week over the famous “Bong Hits for Jesus” banner. I mean, compared to the dry contractual issues that you sometimes have to deal with, please tell me you looked forward to that argument a little bit.

JUSTICE BREYER: Yes, I looked forward to it a little bit. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: Okay. (Applause.) Did you – I have not read the complete arguments – did you in fact engage in any drug humor at all, just a little bit?

JUSTICE BREYER: I don’t engage in any direct humor.

MR. SAGAL: No, no –

JUSTICE BREYER: Humor is a matter for other people to judge.

MR. SAGAL: I understand. Okay, so it’s not up to you.

One thing I’ve always wondered about the Supreme Court, considering the deliberation that goes into the actual important decisions that control our legal framework, how do you go about ordering lunch?

JUSTICE BREYER: (Chuckles.) This is a very sensitive topic. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: Okay.

JUSTICE BREYER: I mean, for many years I’d risen to the highest administrative level I’m likely ever to rise to, which is being the court – the judges’ representative on the court’s cafeteria committee. (Laughter.)



MS. POUNDSTONE: There’s a cafeteria committee?

JUSTICE BREYER: Yeah, yeah, and I’m not sure I was a great success in that position. Don’t tell anyone. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: Justice Stephen Breyer, we are so honored to have you with us. And we have asked you here to play a game that we’re calling:

CARL KASSELL: “Your Last Album was Inspired by $40,000 worth of Primo Hashand a Disembodied Spirit Called Sheldon.” (Scattered laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: Blender Magazine, I’m sure you’re a subscriber, recently published a list of the 50 craziest pop stars of all time, and using that list, we are going to ask you three questions about the rock-and-roll lifestyle. Answer two of these questions correctly, you’ll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl Kassell playing an acid version of the “Star Spangle Banner” on his Fender ax on their answering machine – (laughter) – or whatever they want, actually.

Carl, who is Justice Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court playing for.

MR. KASSELL: Peter, the justice is playing for James Hayes of Kansas City, Missouri.

MR. SAGAL: Are you ready to go?

JUSTICE BREYER: Yeah, I think so. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: All right, here is your first question. David Bowie, who we now know as a pleasant enough middle-aged man, was in his day a little wacky. Back in the ’70s, he became so paranoid once that he did what? 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; or C, he refused to go near a microphone for two months because he thought aliens were stealing his voice.

JUSTICE BREYER: Hmm. Well, I would guess it’s either B or C, and I would take B.

MR. SAGAL: You’re going to take B. You’re going to say he refused to eat anything, waiting for the bodyguard to actually put it in his mouth – stood there; did not die; took it out of his mouth; handed it to Mr. Bowie.

JUSTICE BREYER: My daughter might know, but that is what I’ll guess, yeah.

MR. SAGAL: I’m afraid actually it was A, he tried to exorcise Satan from his swimming pool. (Laughter.) His ex-wife tells the story in her book about life with Bowie. She says that he became convinced Satan was living in the swimming pool, conducted an exorcism. And even weirder than that, she says the pool started to bubble – (laughter).: And she looked and she saw some sort of dark shape writhing on the bottom.

JUSTICE BREYER: Mm-hmm. Weird.

MR. BURBANK: I have seen those advertised in The New Yorker, right.

MR. SAGAL: Yeah, those little –

MR. BURBANK: You have those endless pool. Is that the same thing?

MR. SAGAL: No, the Satanic pool and the endless pool are different things. (Laughter.)

All right, now, you have two more chances here.

MS. POUNDSTONE: It’s kind of funny to hear a Supreme Court justice make, like, a random pick. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: It is a little – it’s a little disconcerting.

MS. POUNDSTONE: I mean, I guess I know that you must do that sometimes, but not in your professional life of course.


MR. SAGAL: Yeah, that is kind of funny. Well, also, unlike the Supreme Court, we give you another chance. You know, it’s not just like 30 minutes and you’re out. You have another chance, so here is your second question.

Iggy Pop, I’m sure you know, lead singer of the Stooges, one of the inventors of punk rock. He once did what for an entire year? A, he refused to wear a shirt anywhere he went; B, he ate nothing but German sausages; or C, spoke only in rhyme.


MR. SAGAL: You’re to take C, he spoke only in rhyme.


MR. SAGAL: No, I’m afraid it was B; he ate nothing but sausages.



MS. POUNDSTONE: Oh, that – man.

MR. SAGAL: A weird kind of punk rock asceticism.


MR. SAGAL: It was during the period he was living with David Bowie in Berlin.

MR.ROCCA : But was it, you could have pork, chicken, sort of beef sauce –

MR. SAGAL: We were not able to ascertain they actual extent of the variety of sausages he ate, but apparently he ate only sausages.

MS. POUNDSTONE: But you would have thought – I’m sorry, you would have thought that would have made him kind of bloated and fat, right.

MR. ROCCA : Not necessarily. They could be a turkey sausage, a tofu sausage.

MR. SAGAL: Plus, I love we have Stephen Breyer here and we are debating the merits of Iggy’s Pop’s sausage.

MR. SAGAL: I’m going to take a second and ask you. I mean, we have all been sort of dealing with this – I mean, do people treat you a bit, shall we say, formally because you are of course justice of the Supreme Court.

JUSTICE BREYER: Many do; some don’t.

MR. SAGAL: Does it bother you?

JUSTICE BREYER: My family doesn’t.

MR. SAGAL: Oh, I’m sure not.

MS. POUNDSTONE: Which do you prefer?

JUSTICE BREYER: Which I prefer?


JUSTICE BREYER: No, I prefer not formal. I prefer not formal.

MS. POUNDSTONE: That is why we are just kind of getting down with you. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: Yeah, that is why we are bringing up the sausages. Do you have, like, a ritual, in which you – you know, in which you – in which you say, hey, I don my robe one voluminous head hole at a time like anybody else. I mean, is there is some – (laughter) – do you find yourself – what would you say – do you find yourself having to put people at ease because you are a justice of the Supreme Court?

JUSTICE BREYER: Sometimes, but I wouldn’t do it that particular way. (Laughter, applause.)

MR. SAGAL: All right, you have one –

MS. POUNDSTONE: Wait, I have just – now that you mention the robe. This has been eating away at me. I happen to have OCD. Do you lint lift?

MR. SAGAL: What?


MS. POUNDSTONE: Your robe. The black robes. Do they get fuzz on them, and then you lint lift with, like, an adhesive thing?

MR. SAGAL: The question for you, Justice Breyer is, do you ever have to maintain your robes with an adhesive and/or other kind of lint-removal device.

MR. ROCCA: Or does Justice Alito pick it off for you?

JUSTICE BREYER: You know, actually I – I bought my robe I think about 25 years ago – (chuckles) – in Boston.

MR.ROCCA: Where did you buy it?

MS. POUNDSTONE: You bought your own robe?

MR.ROCCA: Where do you go for it? Filene’s Basement, or --

JUSTICE BREYER: I went to some shop down – I remember downtown. It was downtown.


MR. ROCCA : Great.

JUSTICE BREYER: And I was a – (laughter) – what? It’s a synthetic.

MR. ROCCA : Robes R Us.

MS. POUNDSTONE: You have been great up until now, and I have so trusted you, and I have thought we are in good hands, but there is no – you bought your robe in downtown Boston?



JUSTICE BREYER: I can’t remember the name of the place –

MR. BURBANK: He’s not allowed to – no, no, no, he is not allowed to endorse it.

MR. SAGAL: It’s a synthetic robe, you were saying.

MR.ROCCA: Is it synthetic? What do you lay on –

JUSTICE BREYER: Yeah, and it has no lint.

MR. ROCCA : Oh, that is great.

JUSTICE BREYER: The nicer robe was Justice O’Connor and Justice Ginsburg. They have very nice collars.

MR. ROCCA : Oh, what do they have? Is it lined? (Laughter.)

JUSTICE BREYER: They are very nice.

MR. SAGAL: The synthetics are nice because they wick the sweat during intense argument.

MS. POUNDSTONE: But how do you –

MR. SAGAL: Technical fabric.

MS. POUNDSTONE: First of all, I would have thought that that got provided.

MR. SAGAL : Yeah, no, no.

JUSTICE BREYER: No, they don’t. You know, it’s –

MR. SAGAL: Really.

MS. POUNDSTONE: It’s like working at the I-Hop for heaven’s sakes. (Laughter, laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: All right – okay, all right. Well, no, I mean, I think, I think – no, this is – this is – I know, I think that we don’t need to disparage Justice Breyer –

MR. BURBANK : It’s probably a good idea.

MR. SAGAL: Yeah, because –

MR. BURBANK : Gitmo this time of year is quite hot. (Laughter.)

MR. SAGAL: No, I think it’s a honorable thing, if you will, that he buys his own robes.

MR. ROCCA: Do you ever wear the robe to the supermarket just to wow people? (Laughter.) That would be awesome.

MR. SAGAL: I believe the sign does say 12 items or less, or Supreme Court justices. (Laughter.) All right, now, we have more question for you, Justice Breyer… Here we go. Now, I’m sure, Justice Breyer, you have heard of Ozzy Osborne. Yes, no? Okay, well, Ozzy Osborne, well known misbehaving rock star of the last two decades or so, he is also known for having some substance abuse problems. Once when checking in for a rehab session at the well-known Betty Ford clinic, he did what? A, he immediately asked for directions to the bar – (scattered laughter) – B, he propositioned Liza Minnelli, who happened to be walking by – (laughter); or C, hungry, he ate two plastic pieces of fruit from a table centerpiece.


MR. SAGAL: C -- you say with confidence. You say it was C. He just grabbed the food and he gobbled it up.


MR. SAGAL: No, it was A. (Laughter.) He asked for the directions to the bar.

JUSTICE BREYER: Oh, there we are.

MR. SAGAL: He was dead serious, too. And I bet he found it. (Laughter.)

So, Carl, how did the associate justice do answering our questions?

MR. KASSEL: Not very well, Peter. (Laughter.) I’m afraid Justice Breyer struck out; no correct answers.

MR. ROCCA : Mm. Back to the appeals court.

JUSTICE BREYER: What about Mr. Hayes? I can send him – I can send him – if you give me his address, I’ll send him a copy of the Constitution?


MR. SAGAL: That I think would be very exciting.

MR. ROCCA : No, they’re going to send him his gavel.

MR. SAGAL: Are you allowed to, like, make corrections in it as you go? I mean, do you, like, strike out that –

MS. POUNDSTONE: A lot of cross outs.

MR. SAGAL: Yeah, exactly. Well, it depends, I guess on which justice is sending it.

MS. POUNDSTONE: I actually – sir, I feel more and more confident. This is one of the few shows that when you fail it’s a mark of pride really. I feel more and more confident about your ability to protect our Constitution knowing that you didn’t know the answers to any of those three questions. (Laughter. Applause.)

MR. SAGAL: We don’t want you reading Blender and watching the Osbornes on TV. We want you cogitating upon the law, and we’re glad you’re doing it.

Stephen Breyer is an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. He is also the author of the recent book, “Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution.” Justice Breyer, thank you so much for being with us today.