WASHINGTON – In the Supreme Court cafeteria, Justice Stephen Breyer (search) inspects the ham and egg salads, as well as the broccoli. Fresh enough? he asks diners. Too expensive? Do you like the choices?
Fitting questions for a member of the court's cafeteria committee, on which Breyer serves.
When justices meet behind closed doors to discuss cases, Breyer is called on last to give his views. He also has to serve as the doorman during those sessions, passing messages to the other justices.
Such is life for the Supreme Court's junior justice.
Seniority rules many institutions in Washington. In the Supreme Court (search), it may be more keenly felt because there are only nine justices. The order in which justices sit when they hear cases and their office space are dictated by years of service.
Breyer, 64, has been the freshman longer than any other justice in modern history: nine years this summer. The one time the court went longer without a change was 1812-1823, when there were seven justices.
The status seems neither to bother nor to hamper Breyer. He frequently is one of the more engaged of the court members during arguments. He is expressive, leaning forward on the bench with a wide smile, rubbing his balding pate. Often he asks practical, thought-provoking questions.
When asked about his status, Breyer noted each member has just one vote, and "no justice's vote carries more weight."
It is possible Breyer's status could change soon. June traditionally is a time for retirement announcements on the court. The most likely prospects are Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search), 78, and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 73.
What awaits any new justice? Breyer said that in the early years of a justice's tenure, it can be more taxing because of the court's voluminous work and the importance of each of the estimated 80 cases a year that are argued.
"Like Justice (David) Souter says, `You're on duty full-time.' It's serious responsibility," Breyer told The Associated Press.
When he was named to the court by President Clinton, Breyer was chief judge on the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search), where he served 14 years. At the appeals court, he oversaw a $200 million court construction project, interviewing architects, touring other courthouses and consulting with environmental and community groups.
When the Supreme Court started planning its own major renovation, the chief justice named more senior justices to handle it.
Breyer got the cafeteria job, which might sound like a lowly assignment, but Breyer makes the most of it. Recent additions include an expanded salad bar and Starbucks coffee. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a proponent of healthy eating, also had held the job.
Breyer, a father of three and former Harvard Law School professor, is known for a playful side.
When his son graduated from Stanford in 1997, a third-generation Stanford graduate, Breyer gave the commencement address and was lured by chanting students into doing the macarena dance, albeit somewhat awkwardly.
He hosts schoolchildren at the court for Dr. Seuss book readings each year, trading his black robes for a themed tie and oversized striped top hat.
Breyer said he enjoys the lighter moments of the job, like talking to school groups. "That's my niche," he said.
"He is an extremely companionable sort of person. He is naturally friendly," said Harvard professor Charles Fried, a former U.S. solicitor general and a Breyer friend. "That's not true of all of them. Some of them are good bit more austere."
On charged issues such as the death penalty, cases that are often divided 5-4, Breyer mainly votes with the court's more liberal members. But sometimes he sides with conservatives, including his vote with the majority in a 5-4 ruling last year that gave schools more authority to test students for drugs.
In 2000, he joined conservatives in ruling that public schools must allow after-school Bible study class meetings if they also permit meetings of groups like the Boy Scouts.
He has not been hesitant to speak independently when giving speeches outside the court or in cases.
Recently, he encouraged lawyers to be sure that the government's fight against terrorism is not undermining civil liberties. Last year, he wrote alone in saying the court should consider whether long delays on death row are cruel and unusual punishment.
"He's one of the ablest justices on a very able court," said George Washington University professor Jeffrey Rosen, an expert on the court who sees Breyer emerging as a leader among the liberals, especially on issues of congressional authority.
"It may have taken a few years to get his sea legs, but he's now developed an entirely distinct and confident voice as a constitutional pragmatist."
Breyer's friends describe him as a family man. He jokes that he has his own personal psychologist - his wife, Joanna, a psychologist who specializes in treating children with cancer in Boston.
His one sibling, a younger brother, is a federal judge in California. One of his two daughters is an Episcopal leader. Breyer is Jewish.
Breyer was Clinton's second nominee to the court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (search) was named a year earlier, in 1993.
Breyer told the Senate during confirmation hearings that growing up in San Francisco, he worked as a delivery boy and dug ditches for the electric company. "My ideas about people do not come from libraries," he said then.