John Paul Stevens: Canny Strategist and the ‘Finest Legal Mind’ Ford Could Find

WASHINGTON — Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired from the Supreme Court in 2010 and died on Tuesday at 99, was the last of a breed. He was chosen for his ability as a lawyer and not, as is common today, for how he was likely to vote in ideologically charged cases. In picking him in 1975, President Gerald R. Ford, a Republican, said all he wanted was “the finest legal mind I could find.”

Justice Stevens was confirmed 19 days after his nomination, by a unanimous vote. Though Roe v. Wade had established a constitutional right to abortion only two years earlier, no senator asked him about the decision during his confirmation hearings, which were the last not to be broadcast live on television.

Three decades later, Ford expressed satisfaction with his choice, who had by then emerged as the leader of the court’s liberal wing.

[Justice John Paul Stevens, who led the Supreme Court’s liberal wing, dies at 99.]

“I am prepared,” Ford wrote, “to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessarily, exclusively) on my nomination 30 years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

By most accounts, Justice Stevens drifted left over his decades on the court, assuming leadership of its liberal wing. But he said it was the court that had moved to the right.

In an interview in 2010, he said that every one of the dozen justices appointed to the court since 1971, including himself, was more conservative than his or her predecessor, with the possible exception of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Justice Stevens was a canny strategist who wrote the first drafts of his opinions, a rarity among modern justices. “I really think it’s a good practice because you will find sometimes that it won’t write, and then you have to start over,” he said in 2010.

He worked behind the scenes, with mixed success, in cases on gun rights, affirmative action, abortion and executive power. He grew disillusioned with the death penalty over the years, announcing in 2008 his conclusion that it violated the Eighth Amendment. But he went on to say that his conclusion did not justify “a refusal to respect precedents that remain a part of our law.”

His most significant dissent may have been in 2010 in the Citizens United campaign finance case, which he viewed as a grave mistake. He stumbled over and mispronounced several words as he announced it from the bench.

Even so, there was no mistaking his basic message. “The rule announced today — that Congress must treat corporations exactly like human speakers in the political realm — represents a radical change in the law,” he said. “The court’s decision is at war with the views of generations of Americans.”

His shaky performance persuaded him that it was time to leave. “Unbeknownst to me,” he wrote in a recent memoir, “I apparently had suffered a ministroke.”

He elaborated in an interview in November. “I made the decision that day,” he said. “After I went to see the doctor, I sent a letter to the president right away.” President Barack Obama nominated Elena Kagan, then the solicitor general, to succeed him.

Of his memoir, Justice Stevens said, “It’s a long story.” And it was.

He was born to a prominent Chicago family that operated what was then the largest hotel in the world, the Stevens Hotel, with 3,000 rooms. He met celebrities like Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, and he was at Wrigley Field for Game 3 of the 1932 World Series to see Babe Ruth’s fabled called-shot home run.

Mr. Stevens attended the University of Chicago and Northwestern University School of Law. In between, he served in the Navy in World War II, signing up on Dec. 6, 1941. “I’m sure you know how the enemy responded the following day,” he liked to say, referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor. He earned a Bronze Star for his work as a code-breaker.

After law school, he served as a clerk to Justice Wiley B. Rutledge Jr., the last of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s appointees. Turning down an offer to teach at Yale Law School, Mr. Stevens returned to Chicago to practice law, specializing in antitrust cases. His career in private practice was broken up by government service, including as counsel to a special commission of the Illinois Supreme Court that led to the resignations of two State Supreme Court justices.

President Richard M. Nixon appointed him in 1970 to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago.

Justice Stevens maintained an active life outside the court, and he did much of his work from his home in Florida, for years piloting his own plane there and back. He loved tennis, golf and bridge.

His long life gave him frames of reference — Prohibition, Tokyo Rose — that amused and sometimes confused his colleagues and law clerks.

He did not have an overarching legal philosophy, Justice Stevens said, beyond what emerged from deciding many hundreds of cases.

“There are a lot of things that run through my work over the years that I think are totally consistent,” he said. “There’s a great deal of wisdom to the notion that you try to decide cases narrowly and you let the other decision makers make as many decisions as they can.”

He did not subscribe to originalism, the approach to interpreting the Constitution that emphasizes the original meaning of its text. In a private memorandum to Justice Harry A. Blackmun in 1992, Justice Stevens put his objection this way: “Traditions — especially traditions in the law — are as likely to codify the preferences of those in power as they are to reflect necessity or proven wisdom.”

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