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John Paul Stevens, American

Covering the Supreme Court for six-plus years was one of the best jobs I have ever had, and one of the best things about it was the opportunity to observe Justice John Paul Stevens on the bench and to get to know him personally.

My admiration for Stevens has relatively little to do with the conclusions he reached in various cases, since I probably only agreed with him about half the time. What I appreciated about him, more and more as the years went by, was his approach to his job and his approach to public life.

First, on a hard-working court, no one worked harder or more efficiently. Much has been made of the fact that Stevens has spent so much of his time in sunny Florida of late. But he was most definitely not on vacation. Rather, Stevens was simply a master at organizing his time and husbanding his energy so as to continue giving taxpayers the maximum value for each dollar of the salary they paid him. He and his law clerks reviewed each petition that came to the court, rather than rely on a memo from the clerk "pool" as most of the other justices did. He wrote the first draft of his own opinions and prepared meticulously for oral argument, as was evident from the precision and frequency of his questions from the bench. His level of effort would have been impressive in a far younger man. From someone in his 80s, it was pretty incredible.

Second, Stevens epitomized judicial temperament. And by that I mean he always took care to preserve both the appearance and reality of his own impartiality. At oral argument, he posed even the most challenging questions politely, and in even tones. He enjoyed a good laugh and never seemed to take either himself or the court too seriously. His written opinions generally refrained from grandstanding or flights of rhetoric. Even his dissent in Bush v. Gore, which ended with a ringing claim that the majority's ruling in favor of George W. Bush would undercut "the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law," seemed more sorrowful than angry.

As the court moved right and Stevens moved left, he frequently found himself in dissent -- including lone dissent. Justice Antonin Scalia often went out of his way to dispute a point Stevens had made. But as far as I can tell, Stevens never let professional disagreements with colleagues become personal -- though I suspect the rivalry with Scalia taxed his tolerance to the limit. When Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died in 2005, Stevens mourned him publicly and sincerely as a close friend, despite the fact that the conservative Rehnquist had rarely been on Stevens's side in the court's cases. When President George W. Bush gave John Roberts the nod to replace Rehnquist, Stevens openly welcomed the choice of a man who was conservative but whose abilities and character Stevens admired.

Unhappy as he was at the outcome of Bush v. Gore, Stevens put the rancor of that case behind him after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, publicly toasting then-President Bush as "my president" at a Chicago lawyers' gathering.

In a famous First Amendment case, Stevens puzzled many liberals by joining the court's conservatives in supporting a ban on burning the American flag. But, like his toast to Bush, Stevens's opinion on flag-burning showed that, to this World War II veteran, country trumped all other considerations. As the author of opinions upholding the constitutional rights of prisoners at Guantanamo, Stevens surely could understand why someone might want to launch a radical protest against U.S. government policy; but as an instinctively polite, respectful and patriotic person, he seemingly couldn't bring himself to accept a protest as deliberately coarse and provocative as flag-burning.

He embraced many causes and stood for many ideals, but what united them all was his belief in what the flag symbolizes: We are all Americans, and we are entitled to respectful, fair treatment from our government and from each other, regardless of our disagreements. He was old-fashioned that way.

President Obama should have no trouble finding a replacement who matches Stevens ideologically. Finding someone to bring the same civility to the court that John Paul Stevens has practiced every day for the last 34 years is going to be a tall order indeed.

By Charles Lane  | April 9, 2010; 12:39 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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"First, on a hard-working court, no one worked harder or more efficiently. Much has been made of the fact that Stevens has spent so much of his time in sunny Florida of late. But he was most definitely not on vacation. Rather, Stevens was simply a master at organizing his time and husbanding his energy so as to continue giving taxpayers the maximum value for each dollar of the salary they paid him."

Let's re-write this if Lane were writing about Antonin Scalia spending a lot of time in Florida.

"Acerbic conservatist activist judge Antonin Scalia, who was among those who appointed G. W. Bush President in 2000, thus disenfranchising an entire nation, has been noticeably absent from the Court of late, reportedly spending a lot of time with his conservative cronies playing in the Florida sunshine. One wonders why the people even bother to pay him or why his colleagues even bother to read his mean-spirited positions. Scalia claims he is very efficient with his time and husbanding his energy to continue his work for the taxpayer. Speaking on behalf of the taxpayer, I'd just like him to be at his desk more."

Lane, Stevens is retiring...he's not dead...but either way you can quit snorkeling around up there.

Posted by: PanhandleWilly | April 9, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

My nephew clerked for Justice Stevens and I got an after-hours tour of the Supreme Court. By far the coolest item in the building is the framed baseball scoring card that a very young Stevens was marking when Babe Ruth "called his shot" in the fifth inning of game three of the 1932 World Series in Chicago's Wrigley Field.

Posted by: newsraptor | April 9, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

I clicked on the comments just to confirm that the Republican hate machine had commented first. Thanks PanhandleWilly! My only surprise is that he's the ONLY cog in the hate machine to have puked up a comment yet.

Posted by: peacenik4 | April 9, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

Schmuck. Stevens is a schmuck.

His decisions have been politically-slanted and disastrous to the rule of law.

Posted by: easttxisfreaky | April 9, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

john paul stevens: Communist. Don't let the door hit ya, prick..

Posted by: wewintheylose | April 9, 2010 8:21 PM | Report abuse

Millions of citizens are sorry he didn't go sooner.

Because of Stevens they never got to enjoy the Rights afforded them by the Constitution.

Posted by: krankyman | April 9, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse

Wonder if the old coot ever thinks about the 40 million unborn babes he turned over to the slaughter houses. He has lived about 90 years and they never even got to see daylight--at least not without scissors in the back of the head.

Posted by: johntu | April 9, 2010 11:56 PM | Report abuse

I guess he figures, with the MUSLIM in the White House, the DESTRUCTION of this country will go on unabated. So it's okay for him to leave. This P.O.S. STEVENS, is just one more example of why TERM LIMITS need to be imposed on EVERYBODY.
Another MONSTER from the Left who will BURN for eternity.
Liberalism truly is, a DISEASE of the mind.

Posted by: GoomyGommy | April 10, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

to the "righty" haters here, your language is truly pathetic and spiteful. but what it truly represents is your powerlessness. you are furious that for the 1st time in a generation your voice doesn't matter. not one whit. the world and this country has changed and what will really smack you down is that for all your rage and bluster the 2010 elections won't be a huge repudiation of this change you find so abhorrent. and let me let you in on a little secret. the demographics of the country are shifting like sand under your feet and change will continue not matter how much the limbaugh,beck,hannity rage machine would wish it not to.

Posted by: dem4evr | April 10, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

This diarrhea of pointless conservative hate needs to stop.

Posted by: brickerd | April 10, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I would love to find out wether the wing nuts that are commenting are part of some Righty puking center or truly right wing individual nut bags. Anything is possible with the Rovian game plan of disruption at the cost of citizens rights.

Posted by: jerseydevil | April 10, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

I find it interesting that Justice Stevens, a veteran and public servant, is being vilified by sniveling hateful posters. He is lauded for being evenhanded, respectfully disagreeing with those he does not share the same view as. To the anonymous posters, agree with him or not, come out from the blogosphere and find out what grown ups act like.

Kevin Owens

Posted by: gorilla_monsoon72 | April 10, 2010 7:58 PM | Report abuse

Curious, isn't it? No, not the hateful spew issuing from the moronic wingnuts. That's all very familiar, although hardly less depressing.

No, what's curious is that Stevens was nominated by Gerald Ford, a Republican president and was a Republican at the time of his appointment. I don't know what he party affiliation is now (or whether it's even a matter of record). If I remember correctly, he has said something to the effect that he didn't leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left him.

Given the rightward lurch of SCOTUS I'm not surprised that Stevens appears to be such a liberal. But could it be that what USED to be counted as moderation/centrism is now taken to be leftism? Wow . . . seems that conservatives, at least the most boisterous ones, are so skewed to the right that anything to the left of them is considered leftist. Although I don't expect such people to abandon their principles, it is sad to realize that they've lost realistic perspective.

Posted by: post_reader_in_wv | April 10, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

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