Patiently, tirelessly, they explain the U.S. Supreme Court to the fawning audiences who listen raptly to their speeches and ask the same predictable questions about how the Court operates. “This Court takes baby steps, not giant steps,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reminds an Association of American Law Schools audience in January in answer to a question about the Court and women’s rights. “We’re a very conservative institution,” says Justice Stephen Breyer in December to a Harvard law student who asks why cameras are not allowed in the Supreme Court. But neither of these answers, oft-repeated, is offered with the slightest trace of frustration or unhappiness. President Bill Clinton’s two gifts to the Supreme Court, now entering their sixth and seventh years as justices, seem entirely comfortable smack in the middle of a baby-stepping, conservative Court.
They are part of, but usually not at the forefront of, a four-justice moderate minority that includes Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter. They spend much of their time in a reactive mode, trying to hold back the conservative tide on issues ranging from federalism to church-state relations. Occasionally they snag a fifth justice or more, but rarely is it the persuasive power of the Clinton appointees that carries the day. Souter and Stevens write more forcefully, and memorably, for what passes for the moderate-liberal wing of the Court.
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