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.
| April 9, 2010; 12:39 PM ET
Categories: Lane | Tags: Charles Lane
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