Justice Stephen Breyer on Saturday stressed the role of the Supreme Court in protecting civil liberties in an age of terrorism.
At a public appearance in Brussels, Belgium, the justice said the high court made a mistake in World War II when it said the relocation of Japanese-Americans in internment camps was constitutional.
Believing a Japanese invasion of the West Coast was possible, President Roosevelt set the program in motion.
"We should have a tough law protecting civil liberties; and if the president thinks that it has to be broken, save the country, he'll break it," Breyer said. "I used to rather sympathize with that point of view, but I don't anymore."
Breyer did not mention President Bush or Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the site of a U.S. prison where nearly 400 detainees have been held indefinitely, some for five years.
In its 6-3 decision in 1944, the Supreme Court said it is permissible to curtail civil rights of a racial group when there is a pressing public necessity.
Breyer related the history of the internment of the Japanese-Americans from personal knowledge. Breyer, who was born in San Francisco in 1938, said he was 6 years old when his mother pointed and said, "That's where they held the Japanese."
Also appearing with Breyer was Georgetown law professor Viet Dinh, who drafted the original Patriot Act in 2001 while serving in the Justice Department shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Dinh said public acceptance of tough law enforcement measures is changing.
As the threat of terrorism "dissipates in the public imagination and importance in the public debate, obviously the public acceptance of measures and restrictions wane and that's when we start thinking about the rules of the road for the long haul," said Dinh.
Breyer and Dinh participated at the Brussels Forum, an annual trans-Atlantic security conference. [Link]
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