August 24, 2019

5 Ways John Paul Stevens Made a Mark on the Supreme Court

5 Ways John Paul Stevens Made a Mark on the Supreme Court


WASHINGTON — Justice John Paul Stevens, who died on Tuesday at 99, served for almost 35 years on the Supreme Court until his retirement in 2010. Here are some highlights from that long and eventful run.

Justice Stevens was the last member of the Supreme Court to have served in World War II, as a Navy cryptographer, and the experience influenced his jurisprudence. Although his voting record was generally liberal, he dissented from Texas v. Johnson in 1969, which ruled that burning a flag as political protest was protected by the First Amendment. “Sanctioning the public desecration of the flag will tarnish its value,” he wrote, “both for those who cherish the ideas for which it waves and for those who desire to don the robes of martyrdom by burning it.”

[Justice Stevens was praised after his death for his legal prowess and humble approach.]

In 1976, just six months after he joined the Supreme Court, Justice Stevens voted to reinstate capital punishment after a four-year moratorium. With the right procedures, he wrote, it was possible to ensure “evenhanded, rational and consistent imposition of death sentences under law.” But he receded from that view over the decades that followed.

In 2008, two years before he retired, he announced in a concurrence that he now believed the death penalty to be unconstitutional. In a 2010 essay published in The New York Review of Books after he stepped down, he wrote that personnel changes on the court, coupled with “regrettable judicial activism,” had created a system of capital punishment that was skewed toward conviction, warped by racism, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria.

But his qualms, so far at least, seem to have had little impact on the Supreme Court majority’s views on capital punishment.

In Bush v. Gore, the 2000 decision that handed the presidency to George W. Bush: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

In Citizens United, the 2010 decision that allowed corporations and labor unions to spend freely in candidate elections: “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”

President Gerald R. Ford, who appointed Justice Stevens to the Supreme Court, said he had sought just one thing in choosing a nominee: “the finest legal mind I could find.”

Mr. Ford was a Republican and no stranger to battles over judicial politics. Earlier in his career, he had led a failed attempt to impeach Justice William O. Douglas for being too liberal, saying he had endorsed “hippie-yippie-style revolution.”

But even as Justice Stevens emerged as a leading liberal on the Supreme Court, Mr. Ford remained a fan.

“I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination 30 years ago of John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Mr. Ford wrote in 2005.

When Justice Stevens announced his dissent in Citizens United in 2010, he sounded weary, stumbling over and mispronouncing ordinary words in the lawyer’s lexicon — corruption, corporation, allegation. Sometimes he would take a second or third run at the word, sometimes not.

He later said he had suffered a mini-stroke and that his performance had convinced him that he had to retire. “I made the decision that day,” he said in an interview in November.

Some thought he had been too hasty. For almost another decade, he stayed extraordinarily active — writing books, making speeches and continuing to reflect on the court he shaped and loved.



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