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Justice Stevens Talks About Life on the High Court

Stevens answers questions after a day-long symposium on his legacy

May 13, 2011 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
A question-and-answer with Justice Stevens was moderated by law alumni Carter Phillips (right) of Sidley Austin and Kate Shaw of the White House Counsel's Office. Photo by Stephen Anzaldi

On the evolution of the Supreme Court confirmation process

On collegiality among Supreme Court justices

On televising arguments before the Supreme Court

On his trademark bow tie

CHICAGO --- Leading scholars and court watchers had spent the day at the law school on Thursday dissecting the life and legacy of John Paul Stevens, retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court -- with symposium panelists addressing Stevens on executive power, on religion and on his methods of interpretation, as well as his relationship with the press and his political trajectory on the court.

By the time Stevens walked onto the stage after the day-long symposium to participate in the much anticipated question-and-answer session with two other high-powered Northwestern Law alumni, the crowd in Thorne Auditorium was eager to hear what Stevens himself would say about his life on the court.

The crowd rose in a prolonged standing ovation as Stevens, who received his J.D. magna cum laude from Northwestern Law in 1947, walked onto the stage with Northwestern Law alumni Carter G. Phillips, a Sidley Austin managing partner who is among the leading Supreme Court litigators, and Kate Shaw, a former Stevens’ law clerk who now is associate counsel in the White House Counsel’s Office.

After a glowing introduction by Northwestern Law Professor Steven Calabresi, who described Stevens as the gold standard for a Supreme Court justice and “a class act,” Stevens engaged in a low-key conversation with Phillips and Shaw that exhibited the Stevens wit and distinct style that court watchers had been touching upon all day.

Stevens talked about everything from his days on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to collegiality on the Supreme Court, the usefulness of amicus briefs and oral arguments -- his feelings about televising them and about how long the justices talk (a lot) in relation to the attorneys during the arguments.

He voiced mixed feelings about televising oral arguments. “I’ve actually gone back and forth on this a few times,” he said. “People are favorably impressed by the fact that members of the Court are really well prepared and on top of the cases when they’re argued.” It is healthy for the public to get a sense of that and learn what goes on during the arguments, he said.

But, he added, “Any time you add television to proceedings where they haven’t been before, it might change the dynamic and have an adverse impact that you don’t anticipate.” There is enough danger, he said, that televising the arguments “might have a harmful effect.”

He is in favor of allowing contemporaneous audio coverage on all the cases.

In talking about the value of his legal experience preceding his judicial career, Stevens shared an amusing anecdote about missing a day of work at the firm where he started out, Poppenhusen, Johnston, Thompson & Raymond. He had to take a day off work to go down to Springfield, Ill., to take the bar exam. “So we lost a day’s pay,” he said. “And we sort of decided at that time that maybe we would rather be our own employers.” 

The firm gave him invaluable experience, he said, but a few years later, Stevens and two others from the firm did leave to start their own practice. “We were experts in everything,” he said. “When anyone would come in with a new problem, we were delighted to take it on.”

The experiences, he said, enhanced his abilities to work with the problems and surprises he later faced on the bench.

Legislative experience, too, he said, is extremely important for justices in interpreting statutes. (In 1951, Stevens served as associate counsel to the subcommittee of the study of monopoly power of the judiciary committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.)  “I’ve always thought that legislative history is terribly important in trying to work through what’s in a case.” 

“But you don’t take everything at face value,” he stressed, when looking at how legislative history is presented in arguments before the Court. “You have to assume the judge is fairly sophisticated, and a lot of the legislative history is tossed in to help a particular point of view in the lobbying before the bill.” The legislative process, he said, is similar to the judicial process “because contending forces are involved.” 

In a discussion of dissents on the Supreme Court, he said, “It is part of the judge’s job to explain his or her vote if the justice doesn’t agree with the majority. I never thought it was enough just to say ‘I dissent,’ which has been done a number of times.”

He also offered a mixed review of the information that the Court receives in amicus briefs, in essence, testimony related to the case in question that has not been solicited by any of the parties. Such briefs are routinely sent to the court on any given case.  

“The number [of amicus briefs] has gone way up,” Stevens said. “I think the legal arguments are helpful, but often they are making a political argument that may not be the best way to develop all the issues. I think we could get along with fewer amicus briefs.”

During questioning from the audience toward the end of the discussion, a female law student asked, "Is there anything more that the faculty and staff could do to help place more Northwestern Law clerks with your colleagues?" "Sure, that's easy," Stevens said, not missing a beat, looking toward Shaw, his former law clerk. "Educate more people like Kate."

He ended the discussion with an anecdote about why he wears his signature bow tie (looking out to a number of men in the audience who followed his fashion for the day).

“Justice, this is a question I wanted to ask you for a long time,” Shaw said at the conclusion of the conversation. “Can you tell us when you decided to start wearing the bow tie?”

“The honest answer is I don’t know,” he said, eliciting laughter. “I was asked about this in an interview this afternoon. The real reason is my dad taught me how to tie bow ties. It’s like tying your shoes, it’s pretty easy.” Tying neckties was another story, he said. “So I just gave up.” 

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