Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has had a leadership role in recent years on issues related to the balance between civil liberties and national security, as well as the death penalty.
Rasul v. Bush (2004)
Civil Liberties and National Security
This landmark case involved a group of Kuwaitis and Australians who were captured in Afghanistan after the U.S. military entered that country in 2002. The government designated them as enemy combatants and moved them to the detention facility at U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, where they were held without charges being filed against them. The men denied they were involved in terrorist activities.
The issue was whether foreign nationals held at Guantánamo Bay could challenge their detention in U.S. federal courts. The Bush administration argued they could not, but the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, said the detainees had that right. Stevens played a pivotal role in guiding the discussion during oral arguments and wrote the majority opinion.
Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006)
Civil Liberties and National Security
Salim Ahmed Hamdan was a Yemeni citizen who was captured in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion and transferred to Guantánamo Bay. The government intended to try him before a military commission. In a 5-3 vote, the Supreme Court found that such commissions violated both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions. Stevens wrote for the majority in a 73-page opinion. The court's decision was widely seen as a rebuke of the expansion of the powers of the executive branch of government.
Atkins v. Virginia (2002)
Daryl Atkins was sentenced to death for a murder in Virginia, though his IQ had been measured at just 59 by a clinical psychologist. Citing a trend of states voting to abolish capital punishment in cases where the defendant was mentally disabled, Stevens wrote for the majority that punishment was appropriate but not the death penalty. "Because of their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment and control of their impulses, however, they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct."
Roper v. Simmons (2005)
This case involved a brutal murder committed in Missouri by a 17-year-old who was given the death penalty. In a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that executing a person who was under age 18 at the time the crime was committed was unconstitutional, based on the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many reasons between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest." In a concurring opinion, Stevens highlighted the importance of "our reaffirmation of the basic principle that informs the court's interpretation of the Eighth Amendment. If the meaning of that amendment had been frozen when it was originally drafted, it would impose no impediment to the execution of 7-year-old children today."
Baze v. Rees (2008)
In this case, two men were convicted of murder in Kentucky and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Their attorneys argued that method constituted cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violated the Eighth Amendment. The court voted 7-2 against the appeal and said that Kentucky's use of lethal injection was permissible. Stevens voted with the majority. But in his concurring opinion he wrote that he thought the time had come to do away with the death penalty altogether.
"Full recognition of the diminishing force of the principal rationales for retaining the death penalty should lead this court and legislatures to re-examine the question recently posed by [Texas Southern University] Professor [Lupe] Salinas, a former Texas prosecutor and judge: 'Is it Time to Kill the Death Penalty?'" Stevens wrote. "The time for dispassionate, impartial comparison of the enormous costs that death penalty litigation imposes on society with the benefits that it produces surely has arrived." — T.S.