Stephen Breyer, an associate justice of the nine-member US Supreme Court, on Tuesday urged US lawyers to study foreign law in order to help judges handle increasingly globalised legal disputes.
Justice Breyer told an annual conference of the American Bar Association that the high court's docket is increasingly international, and lawyers need to know more about foreign law to help the court handle such cases.
With his comments, Justice Breyer stepped into a controversy that is likely to become more heated during next month's confirmation hearings for John Roberts, Supreme Court nominee.
Conservative critics argue that too much attention to foreign laws and legal rulings can distort US court rulings. In recent terms the Supreme Court has referred prominently to foreign legal rulings in cases abolishing the juvenile death penalty and overturning laws that criminalise homosexual sodomy.
Critics also say the US constitution is a quintessentially American document, based on principles that are radically different from those that underpin other legal systems.
But Justice Breyer told the ABA, America's biggest lawyers group, that he thought foreign law could help American judges decide cases more wisely particularly because increasing numbers of foreign countries have democratic governments and face similar legal issues.
“Their judges have a job somewhat similar to mine,” he said. “Why not on some occasions see what they have to say? Why not learn something?”
He cited recent Supreme Court rulings involving the global reach of US antitrust and human rights laws, international trade agreements and cross border exchange of documents relating to lawsuits.
“To decide [those cases] correctly requires lawyers and judges who have some familiarity and ability to reach out and find out about certain areas of foreign law,” he said. “Lawyers and judges need to get on top of these issues.”
Justice Breyer, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, sidestepped a question about Judge Roberts, whose appointment to the Supreme Court is to come before the Senate early next month. The ABA is expected officially to endorse Judge Roberts' nomination later this month, but it was not debated at the conference.