Stevens, John Paul


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Significance: A justice known for independence and skepticism toward established doctrines, Stevens has demonstrated a strong commitment to civil liberties and the protection of the least powerful persons in society.

Raised in a prominent Hyde Park, Chicago, family, John Paul Stephens attended the University of Chicago, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1941. During World War II, he earned a Bronze Star for his service as a code breaker in the Navy. While studying law at Northwestern University, he was editor in chief of the law review and graduated first in his class in 1947. Through the following two years he served as law clerk for Justice Wiley B. Rutledge, Jr. and then worked for a private law firm from 1948 until 1950. Next, he served as associate counsel for the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on monopoly power. From 1952 through 1970, he was partner in a private law firm. During these busy years he also found time to lecture on antitrust law at the Northwestern University School of Law and at the University of Chicago Law School. In 1969, Stevens first attracted public attention while serving as pro bono counsel on the Illinois Supreme Court's special committee investigating a scandal that resulted in the resignation of two corrupt judges. In 1970, Richard M. Nixon appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. During his five years on the Seventh Circuit, Stevens had a moderately conservative record.

Appointment to the Supreme Court

On November 12, 1975, following the resignation of Justice William O. Douglas, President Gerald R. Ford nominated Stevens as his replacement. With the 1976 presidential election drawing near, Ford, as an unelected incumbent president, had promised to look seriously at qualified women when choosing a Supreme Court nominee. However, Stevens, a sitting federal judge with distinguished experience but a low political profile, appeared to be an ideal choice. The American Bar Association Committee on the Federal Judiciary gave Stevens its highest recommendation. He was praised as a “lawyer's lawyer” and a “judge's judge.” At his confirmation hearings, when asked whether he was liberal or conservative, he answered: “I would not label myself, Senator.” Feminist leaders expressed disappointment at Stevens's appointment. Margaret Drachsler of the National Organization for Women told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Stevens had “consistently opposed women's rights” in his appellate court opinions. Representative Bella Abzug also questioned the nominee's “sensitivity to women's rights.” Nan Aron, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, criticized Stevens's refusal to regard sex as a suspect classification deserving of the Court's strictest scrutiny. Stevens's supporters answered that he had voted in favor of plaintiffs in more than 73 percent of the sex discrimination cases in which he had participated. On December 17, 1975, the Senate confirmed Stevens's appointment by a vote of ninety-nine to none. Two days later, Stevens took the oath of office and became the Court's 101st member.

Jurisprudence and Decisions

Stevens's jurisprudence has often been characterized as idiosyncratic, and frequently he defended lonely and eccentric positions on issues. He has routinely published more dissents and concurring opinions than his fellow justices. Skeptical about abstractions and arguing that legal doctrines tend to simplify complex issues, he advocated the method of focusing on the circumstances of particular cases and controversies. He has been a skilled and lucid writer, and his opinions have been recognized for having literary quality. During his early years on the Burger Court, Stevens was usually classified as a moderate conservative, but by the time that William H. Rehnquist became chief justice in 1986, Stevens was more often voting with the Court's liberal wing. By the mid-1990's, he was commonly described as the most liberal member of the Court. Stevens has been a fierce opponent of discrimination based on race, gender, and ethnicity. For many years he condemned affirmative action programs, as in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). He insisted that the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited all preferences based on race. Gradually his views changed, and he joined the majority in Johnson v. Santa Clara County (1987), the first case in which the Court approved a voluntary sex-based affirmative action program. Dissenting in Adarand Constructors v. Peña (1995), he wrote that the nation's history of race discrimination justified strong remedial action. In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), he joined the 5-4 majority in accepting race-based preferences aimed at achieving diversity. In cases alleging discrimination under the equal protection clause, Stevens became a critic of the Court's precedents requiring proof of intent rather than asking whether policies have discriminatory effects. Although concurring in Washington v. Davis (1976), he challenged the distinction between discriminatory intent and discriminatory impact, arguing that this distinction tended to uphold policies that work to the disadvantage of minorities. In McCleskey v. Kemp (1986), he rejected the majority's holding that racial disparity in death sentences did not violate the equal protection clause because of a lack of intent. He joined the dissent, which argued that a significant risk of discrimination should be enough to establish a constitutional violation. In many cases, Stevens criticized the Court's use of three different levels of judicial scrutiny: strict scrutiny, minimal scrutiny, and intermediate scrutiny. Since there is “only one equal protection clause,” he argued that there should only be one standard of review. In Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center (1985), he explained that all government classifications should be evaluated on the basis of a “rational basis” test, requiring that an impartial lawmaker would believe that the classification serves a legitimate public purpose that outweighs the harm done to members of the disadvantaged class. In cases involving restraints on expression, Stevens's record was somewhat mixed. In Young v. American Mini Theatres (1976), he endorsed strict zoning ordinances that restricted sexually oriented businesses to designated neighborhoods. Gradually, he came to adhere to a libertarian approach to pornography, even voting to overthrow a federal law outlawing computer-generated child pornography in ACLU v. Ashcroft (2004). As a patriotic veteran, nevertheless, he dissented when the Court voted five to four to recognize the constitutional right of flag-burning in Texas v. Johnson (1989). By the early twenty-first century, Stevens could usually be counted on to support left-of-center positions. Writing for the majority in Rasul v. Bush (2004), he ruled that aliens detained in a military base in another country had the right to seek habeas corpus relief in federal civilian courts. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), he voted to disallow the execution of minors convicted of murder. Having dissented in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), when a 5-4 majority ruled that the Constitution did not protect a freedom to engage in homosexual acts, he gladly joined the 5-4 majority of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which overturned that ruling. In addition, he wrote a strong dissent in Bush v. Gore (2000), criticizing the five conservative justices who stopped the Florida recount and ensured the outcome of the presidential election of 2000. Through 2006, Stevens continued to participate actively on the Court as he entered his late eighties. To pass the record of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., as the oldest serving justice, he would have to stay on the Court until February 23, 2011.

Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Canon, Bradley C. “Justice John Paul Stevens: The Lone Ranger in a Black Robe.” In The Burger Court: Political and Judicial Profiles, edited by Charles M. Lamb and Stephen C. Halpern. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
  • Hensley, Thomas R. The Rehnquist Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2006.
  • Itallia, Bob, and Paul Deegan. John Paul Stevens. New York: ABDO, 1992.
  • Manaster, Kenneth. Illinois Justice: The Scandal of 1969 and the Rise of John Paul Stevens. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • Sickels, Robert Judd. John Paul Stevens and the Constitution: The Search for Balance. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.
  • Tushnet, Mark. A Court Divided: The Rehnquist Court and the Future of Constitutional Law. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005
  • Yarbrough, Tinsley. The Rehnquist Court and the Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.