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A Justice for All

John Paul Stevens is the quintessential Supreme Court justice: fair, nonpartisan and committed to upholding the rule of law.


"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 Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court," wrote former President Gerald Ford to participants at a 2005 Fordham University School of Law symposium on Stevens' career.

"He has served his nation well, at all times carrying out his judicial duties with dignity, intellect and without partisan political concerns. Justice Stevens has made me, and our fellow citizens, proud of my decision to appoint him to the Supreme Court. I wish him a long life, good health and many more years on the bench."

Four years later, Stevens (L47, H77) is still, at age 88, a thoughtful and active member of the court. Only seven other justices have served as long or longer in the court's 220-year history. If he serves through mid-July 2012, he will be the longest-serving justice ever, passing William O. Douglas, the man he replaced in 1975.

Sitting in his first-floor office at the Supreme Court in shirtsleeves and trademark bow tie, Associate Justice Stevens looks much younger than his age. He is soft-spoken, with a dry sense of humor. He plays tennis three times a week in the early morning, and when he and his wife, Maryan, are at their Fort Lauderdale condominium, he swims in the ocean almost daily.

"I was asked recently how it was that I managed to maintain my good health," he says. "And I came up with an answer that I'm quite proud of. I said you have to marry a beautiful dietitian! And that's what I did."

At a time when most people would be well into retirement, Stevens continues to make his imprint on the law. "One of his most important contributions, out of the many, is his leadership in death penalty cases and post–Sept. 11 cases," says Diane Amann (L86), professor of law at the School of Law at the University of California, Davis, and a former clerk to Stevens (see "Some Noted Recent Opinions").

Amann believes Stevens' experience as a clerk to Justice Wiley Rutledge in 1947 gives him a particular insight into issues of importance today. "He was there just after World War II and at the start of the Cold War," she says. "He had been on the inside of the debate on how to balance civil liberties and national security. That put him in a position to be a leader on the court."

"Stevens is truly a case of a magnificent human being who became a magnificent justice," says Jonathan Turley (L87), a constitutional scholar and professor at George Washington University Law School. "He was not a justice who sought to become a celebrity or to assume the role of legal oracle. He is the quintessential judge — someone who holds to that traditional view that the function of any judge or justice is to decide cases fairly and clearly. His opinions have a distinctly Midwestern character: strong, honest and direct."

Stevens was born April 20, 1920, in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, the youngest of four boys. His mother was a high school English teacher, and his father owned the Stevens Hotel, which today is the Hilton Chicago.

Stevens has memories of some of the famous people he met while they stayed at the hotel. "Amelia Earhart was the principal speaker at the opening banquet of the hotel in 1927," he recalls, and his parents took him to meet her after her speech. "The only thing I remember about it was her remark that I was out awfully late on a school night!"

He also had a memorable meeting with Charles Lindbergh that year during the aviator's tour of the country following his historic transatlantic flight. "I remember being in his suite, which was just loaded with gifts people had sent him," Stevens says. One of the gifts was a caged dove, which Lindbergh later gave to the young Stevens. "He was very kind to a little boy. We took the dove to the family home in Michigan, and it later escaped. It had a very short tenure with us," Stevens says, laughing.

Stevens stayed close to home and attended the University of Chicago. He majored in English, served as editor of the school paper and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. In summer 1941 he entered graduate school there to pursue a master's degree in English.

One day Stevens was approached by the dean of students, an undercover recruiting agent for the U.S. Navy, to take a correspondence course in cryptography. Over the semester he progressed to the point that the Navy notified him that he had qualified for a commission. On Dec. 6, 1941, Stevens went to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago, Ill., to fill out the paperwork. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor the following morning.

After a brief posting to Washington, D.C., Stevens was sent to Pearl Harbor, where he spent most of the war as an intelligence officer. He was part of a code-breaking team working on Japanese intercepts. The group's efforts uncovered information that led to the shooting down of a plane carrying the Japanese architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, in 1943. Stevens and his Navy colleagues were awarded the Bronze Star.

Stevens returned to Chicago intending to get a graduate degree in English. He had thought about a career in hotel management, like his father, or as an English teacher, like his mother. But one of his older brothers suggested law school. "I had that as a possibility all along," Stevens says, "but he was the one who was decisive in helping me make the decision."

With the help of the GI Bill, Stevens enrolled at Northwestern's School of Law in 1945. Because of the huge numbers of returning veterans, many law schools offered an accelerated program that compressed the six semesters into two years. Stevens excelled in the classroom, earning the highest grade-point average in the history of the school to that point. He was editor in chief of the law review.

"They had a wonderful faculty at Northwestern, and it was quite small, I think eight or 10 professors," Stevens says. "It was just a handful of the best. They were really quality teachers and they all made a very significant impression on me. It's different now where schools have these huge faculties — I don't know how the students can develop the same relationships we did."

(In Stevens' honor, several of his former classmates established the John Paul Stevens Professorship at Northwestern's law school in 1992. The school also has the Justice John Paul Stevens Public Interest Fellowship Program that provides financial assistance to students who volunteer for public interest summer jobs.)

Following law school Stevens applied for a clerkship with the U.S. Supreme Court. He and a fellow clerk were being considered for either a two-year assignment with Chief Justice Fred Vinson or one year with Associate Justice Wiley Rutledge. They flipped a coin, and Stevens won. He opted to work for Rutledge because it would permit him to move on with his law practice more quickly.

"I learned a great deal from Justice Rutledge and from the experience with the other clerks. I learned a lot about how the court works," recalls Stevens. "It was probably one of the best jobs one could be fortunate enough to get."

Stevens returned to Chicago and joined the firm of Poppenhausen, Johnston, Thompson & Raymond, which later became Jenner & Block, and began a practice specializing in antitrust law. In 1951 he returned to Washington, D.C., where he served as associate counsel to a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee that was studying the power of monopolies. "I spent a year on the subcommittee, which was an important year of my life, and I learned a lot about how Congress works and the legislative process."

He returned to his original firm in Chicago, and a year later he and two other lawyers left to start their own firm, Rothschild, Stevens, Barry & Meyers.

In 1969 Stevens was tapped for an assignment that would dramatically change the trajectory of his legal career. The Illinois Supreme Court set up a special commission to investigate charges that two of its members had received a benefit from a litigant in a pending case. Stevens was appointed counsel, in essence a special prosecutor, and recruited a small staff of volunteers. He was given a deadline of six weeks to gather information and prosecute the case.

Kenneth Manaster, now a professor of law at Santa Clara University, was a young attorney who staffed the commission and later wrote a book about the experience, Illinois Justice. Manaster describes Stevens as "a great listener, open to suggestions for how to do the job in a different or better way. He was able to see the big picture and connections among its pieces, which others often missed."

The case was an extremely high profile one in the Chicago legal community because of the stature of the defendants. And Stevens' work did not go unnoticed in legal circles.

Illinois Sen. Charles Percy had set up a committee of lawyers to help him make recommendations for judicial vacancies. Though he and Stevens had been classmates and friends in college at the University of Chicago, they had lost track of each other over the years. As a result of the publicity surrounding the commission's work, Percy called Stevens to ask for suggestions for a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

"After Percy asked for recommendations, he asked if I would be interested and eventually it led to his suggesting my name for the Court of Appeals," Stevens says.

President Richard Nixon appointed Stevens to the vacancy in November 1970, and for the next five years he served with distinction on the Court of Appeals. When Justice Douglas retired from the Supreme Court, then President Ford began a search for his replacement.

His new attorney general, former president of the University of Chicago Edward Levi, urged Ford to consider Stevens, a fellow Chicagoan. In the wake of the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation, Ford was looking for a worthy candidate with impeccable credentials who could make it through the confirmation process without turmoil.

"In a matter of about a week or 10 days, there were newspaper stories speculating on a dozen or so people who were being considered," Stevens recalls. The list also included a colleague on the Court of Appeals and a later nominee, Robert Bork. But Stevens ultimately was the one Ford called.

"It was a very exciting moment, as you would understand. I, of course, told him I would be honored and delighted to have the opportunity to serve in the position," Stevens says with a smile. The Senate confirmed him on a 98-0 vote, and he was sworn in Dec. 19, 1975.

•••

Stevens has an extremely loyal following of former law clerks who have great admiration for him. "He is a most extraordinary person," says former Northwestern law school professor Lawrence Marshall (L85), a professor at Stanford Law School and former Stevens clerk. "He is fiercely independent, very open-minded and deliberative. Justice Stevens is very humane and able to find humanity in others. He has a leprechaunish sense of humor and a graceful way of making a point."

From the outset, Stevens stood out from most of the other justices in his practice of writing the first draft of his opinions, a task that is usually handled by the clerks. "I do, and that's partly attributable to working for Wiley Rutledge," he says. "His practice was to write the first draft on a long yellow pad. I started that as a practice, and I thought it quite important because there are so many times when, by writing a draft, you learn things about a case that you might not have gotten out of the briefs."

He recalls a colleague on the Court of Appeals who also did his own drafts. "I remember him saying, 'If you write the facts out carefully, the rest of the opinion will write itself.' I think if you do the first draft you'll be much more confident that you're coming out with what you think are the right results."

Because Stevens is the senior associate justice, when there is a split decision and Chief Justice John Roberts and he are on opposite sides, each assigns the writing of opinions for their positions. Stevens often takes the assignment for himself and also frequently prepares a concurring opinion.

Justices participate at different levels during oral arguments before the court, when they ask questions of the lawyers. Stevens is an active participant. "It's a skill that he's been noted for all of his career," says Amann. "He's a master at framing his questions at oral argument and steering the discussion. I've heard lawyers say they feel like they're being reeled in and they can't stop it. He takes them to places they don't want to go."

When Stevens was first appointed to the Supreme Court, he was widely perceived as a moderate. But that view has changed over the years. "I think he'll be remembered as a Republican nominee, a centrist, who, for a number of years, anchored the more liberal wing of the court," says David Van Zandt, dean of the Northwestern School of Law, who clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun in 1982–83. Despite that, Van Zandt adds, "He's very independent; he doesn't follow in lock step. He's a real judge, a judge's judge. He doesn't have ideological things that he clings to."

Stevens believes he has remained consistent. "The court has definitely changed," he says. "The words conservative and liberal tend to be a little bit misleading in the way you can apply them. There's a vast difference between a judicial conservative and a political conservative. I consider myself, really, a judicial conservative. I'm very interested in trying to maintain the rule of law and follow precedent and principles as much as I can. So I don't really think that I've changed very much."

He cites as one example a 2008 decision, Baze v. Rees, that argued that lethal injection in a death penalty case was cruel and unusual punishment. While Stevens voted in the majority to reject the argument, he used his concurrence to suggest that the death penalty should be abolished in this country.

"People have thought that I've become a wild liberal because of what I wrote," he says. "My views on the death penalty are very close to those of Potter Stewart, who was a conservative, very fine justice. I think the court has allowed tremendous expansion of the availability of the death penalty since Stewart left. And I think if those justices had adhered to the rules that he worked out, we would have had a very narrow application that would not have imposed the tremendous costs on society and the judiciary that we have."

Despite regular differences, especially in the past few years when 5-4 decisions have become more frequent, Stevens says the court is more collegial and congenial than it may appear from the outside. "They're a bunch of nice people, which is one of the nice things about the job. Everybody on the court is someone you'd be glad to have as a friend."

An example are the lunches the justices share four times a week when they're in session. "It's basically a social occasion," he says. "Very rarely do we talk about cases. We may talk about 'We had a lousy argument from a lawyer' or something that happened in the courtroom. We mostly talk about personal things."

There has been much speculation about when Stevens might retire, but he gives no hints and says he enjoys the work. "I think I'm happier at work than I would be not working," he says. A lighter caseload than the court took in his earlier years also has made a difference. "The fact that the volume has gone down and the work has relaxed a little bit has made it easy for me to hang around, I have to confess."

On the wall behind his desk are photos of some of the people who have had the greatest influence on his life: Ford, Rutledge, his mother and father, children and grandchildren. He has seen, and made, a lot of history but seems unconcerned about how history will ultimately view him.

"It's a funny thing about this job," he says. "You're really concerned about the things you're working on currently. It's awfully hard to be a judge of how things will be viewed in the broader perspective.

"Last year we had a case on the Second Amendment [District of Columbia v. Heller, which upheld a Court of Appeals ruling that struck down a ban on handguns in Washington, D.C.], and I just thought the court got it profoundly wrong, not as a matter of policy but interpreting the actual history of the amendment. It's a popular decision; the majority decision was much more popular than the minority decision. But that's not the test.

"I just hope people think I got it right more often than I got it wrong."

Turley is less restrained. "I believe that history will judge Stevens as one of the truly great justices. He was never as flashy as Douglas or as iconic as [Thurgood] Marshall. Yet in the substance of his work, he has shaped the law on the most fundamental level. In many ways, the opinions are much like the man himself — understated and powerful.

"Stevens was not divinely ordained for the court. He grew during his time on the court into a magnificent jurist. It was ironically the single most lasting and positive contribution that Gerald Ford would make as president. This country is much better for it, and Stevens can honestly say, though he would never say it, that he left this country's laws far better than he found them."

Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer in Chicago.

Tell us what you think. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at letters@northwestern.edu.

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in chambers
Stevens in his chambers at the Supreme CourtPhoto by Getty Images