updated 5/3/2006 8:48:52 AM ET 2006-05-03T12:48:52

The job of a justice on the nation's highest court is to patrol the boundaries of American society, not to decide what kind of society it should have, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said Tuesday.

People are suspicious of what the court does and think it intrudes into what they do, Breyer said.

"Democracy has boundaries, or rails," he said during a luncheon at New York Law School. "We are the boundary patrol."

The 68-year-old justice noted that the word democracy is not found in the Constitution. But the concept, he said, is there.

"When you understand this document has democracy as its heart, then you have an approach to answer specific questions," Breyer said.

The Constitution creates a structure that lets citizens govern themselves and decide what kind of society they want, he said.

Some regrets
In response to audience questions, Breyer said that there are probably decisions he has made on Supreme Court that he now regrets, but that he doesn't dwell on those cases.

His hardest and most stressful decision, he said, was in Bush v. Gore, when the court ruled on the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. He sided with the minority.

"The justices didn't shout at each other," he said of the process. "In fact, in the last 12 years I have never heard a voice raised in anger in the conference room."

Breyer, who was nominated by President Clinton in 1994, generally sides with liberal members of the court but also has been a swing voter.

As the junior member of the court for 11 1/2 years, one of the longest terms in that role in the court's history, Breyer was responsible for answering the door of the court's conference room.

At Tuesday's luncheon, he told the audience about one of the last times he performed that duty, just before Justice Samuel Alito was confirmed in January and became the new junior member.

Breyer responded to a knock from someone bringing coffee for Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative who is often on opposing sides of an argument with Breyer.

While Breyer dutifully served the hot coffee, Scalia commented on Breyer's long stint as junior justice.

"Yes, and I have gotten very good at it," Breyer replied.

"No, you haven't," Scalia joked.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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