John Paul Stevens, 1920-2019
July 17, 2019 12:02 PM   Subscribe

Stevens served 35 years on the Supreme Court and became a leading liberal voice. He died Monday, aged 99, after a stroke. Stevens was nominated by Gerald Ford in 1970 and came to the Court as a moderate midwestern Republican. He was a staunch defender of the separation of church and state and later would be a voice against the death penalty*, in favor of affirmative action, and in favor of abortion rights. Recently, he spoke against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, called for the repeal of the second amendment, and threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game, which he described as the highlight of his career.

* He would eventually say that his voting to reinstate the death penalty in the 70s was his greatest regret; later in his career (2002 Atkins v Virginia), he would argue with the majority that applying capital punishment to mentally disabled persons constituted cruel and unusual punishment

A short list few of notable decisions:

Writing for the majority
1978, Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation. In a 5-4 ruling, Stevens wrote that the FCC has the power to regulate indecent material over the airwaves, giving the agency broad leeway in interpreting what’s indecent and allowing it to bar unwanted speech during hours children might be watching or listening. The case resulted from the famous broadcast of comedian George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words’’ routine.

1984, Sony v. Universal Studios. In a 5-4 ruling, Stevens wrote that consumers do not violate copyright law when they tape programs with their video cassette recorders and manufacturers of recording devices cannot be liable for infringement. The precedent has sheltered a wide array of technology innovators from lawsuits.


2005, Kelo v. City of New London (Conn.). In a 5-4 ruling, he defended cities’ use of the eminent domain principle to condemn houses so that a private development could proceed.

2006, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. In a 5-3 ruling, he held that the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to hear cases from detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba and that the Bush administration did not have authority to set up military commissions without congressional authorization.

Writing in dissent
1989, Texas v. Johnson. Against a 5-4 ruling declaring the burning of the US flag was protected speech under the First Amendment, Stevens wrote: “The ideas of liberty and equality have been an irresistible force in motivating leaders, . . . the Philippine Scouts who fought at Bataan, and the soldiers who scaled the bluff at Omaha Beach. . . . If those ideas are worth fighting for and our history demonstrates that they are, it cannot be true that the flag that uniquely symbolizes their power is not itself worthy of protection from unnecessary desecration.’’

2000, Bush v. Gore. Against a 5-4 ruling that halted the recount of votes in Florida for the 2000 presidential election, he argued: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.’’

2010, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Denouncing the 5-4 ruling that held the First Amendment allows corporate financing of independent political advertisements on behalf or against political candidates, Stevens, in a 90-page dissent, wrote “the court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding. . . . It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.’’

Hopefully others will contribute here! I saw there wasn't an FPP for him yet and thought he deserved one.
posted by stillmoving (28 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
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posted by Cash4Lead at 12:05 PM on July 17




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posted by Caduceus at 12:24 PM on July 17


Every anecdote I've heard about him indicates that he was kind and generous man, even apart from his jurisprudence.

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posted by Chrysostom at 12:31 PM on July 17


Hard to categorize, in part because his opinions were all over the map. He was the father of Chevron deference, which might be the most significant legal principle not familiar to most Americans—the deference give to federal government agencies’ interpretations of the laws they administer. And yet he didn’t play up his hard-to-categorize approach to try and grab for power as the “swing vote” the way O’Connor and Kennedy did. A humble man.

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posted by sallybrown at 12:34 PM on July 17 [2 favorites]


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Worth reading the NYT article for the coffee anecdote.
posted by praemunire at 12:37 PM on July 17 [4 favorites]


He also wrote the majority opinion in Massachusetts v. EPA, which told the Bush administration it had to treat greenhouse gases as air pollution subject to the Clean Air Act (a decision the Trump administration is now working its hardest to undermine).

And in another arena entirely, Justice Stevens was also as far as anyone knows the last living person who remembered being at Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, where Babe Ruth called his shot.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:40 PM on July 17 [10 favorites]


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posted by Foosnark at 12:41 PM on July 17


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posted by briank at 12:53 PM on July 17


(also, very nicely done obit post)
posted by briank at 12:54 PM on July 17 [3 favorites]


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posted by Gray Duck at 1:27 PM on July 17


Stevens was nominated by Gerald Ford in 1970

Surely there’s a typo in there—Ford became president in 74.

Ah, yes—checking. Stevens joined the court in 75.

This is a nicely done post, thanks.
posted by Orlop at 1:29 PM on July 17


And also the most recent justice from the Midwest (though John Roberts, born in NY, spent some time in Indiana growing up).

Given that all the other current justices are from the East Coast (Gorsuch was born in CO but spent much of his childhood in DC), I don't see another Midwestern justice anytime soon.
posted by crazy with stars at 1:48 PM on July 17


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posted by 20 year lurk at 2:18 PM on July 17


praemunire: Worth reading the NYT article for the coffee anecdote.
One former law clerk, Christopher L. Eisgruber, described in a 1993 essay1 an incident at a party for new clerks: Before Justice Stevens arrived, an older male justice had instructed one of the few female clerks present to serve coffee. When Justice Stevens entered, he quickly grasped the situation, walked up to the young woman and said: “Thank you for taking your turn with the coffee. I think it’s my turn now.” He took over the job.
11992/1993 Annual Survey of American Law, New York University School of Law
posted by WCityMike at 2:20 PM on July 17 [16 favorites]


It’s worth noting that he did not think that Kelo was good policy, but that it was the result required by precedent. Compare that with several Justices now, who don’t seem to be bound by precedent at all, particularly Thomas. And the Kelo issue worked out the way it should in a democracy: many places self-imposed limits on their eminent domain power. Justice Stevens looked at the outer limits of the Constitution, not his own ideas of policy. Local governments then addressed policy.
posted by kerf at 2:35 PM on July 17 [1 favorite]


Orlop: "Surely there’s a typo in there—Ford became president in 74.

Ah, yes—checking. Stevens joined the court in 75.
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Nixon nominated Stevens to the 7th Circuit in '70; Ford nominated him to SCOTUS in '75.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:42 PM on July 17 [1 favorite]


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posted by JoeXIII007 at 2:48 PM on July 17


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posted by rather be jorting at 3:38 PM on July 17


John Paul Stevens, 1920-2019
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posted by stillmoving
uneponysterical!
posted by scruss at 4:11 PM on July 17 [3 favorites]


Nina Totenberg had a great segment about Stevens today on NPR. The most notable comment of hers was this one:
Well, he would say he didn't evolve, and I actually think he's right. He said that he didn't change. It was the court that changed. He was at the center right of the court when he came on, but as more Republican presidents got the opportunity to name Supreme Court nominees, and as those nominees were more and more conservative, Stevens suddenly found himself at the left end of the court, the most liberal end of the court. He hated that label because he viewed himself as a conservative.
There's this ideal that the Supreme Court is non-political, that it makes legally correct decisions based on the merits of each case. Of course that's never been strictly true but at least it used to be an ideal. Stevens hewed to that ideal. His dissent in the Bush v Gore case (quoted in the post) is the absolute marker for the failure of judicial independence in the contemporary area.
It is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law. Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today’s decision. One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.
posted by Nelson at 5:41 PM on July 17 [4 favorites]


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posted by of strange foe at 7:21 PM on July 17


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A gentleman. They're getting rarer.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:41 PM on July 17


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posted by riverlife at 9:54 PM on July 17


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posted by bryon at 10:37 PM on July 17


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posted by filtergik at 4:05 AM on July 18


He was at the center right of the court when he came on, but as more Republican presidents got the opportunity to name Supreme Court nominees, and as those nominees were more and more conservative, Stevens suddenly found himself at the left end of the court, the most liberal end of the court.

It's a failure of journalists in general, and SCOTUS specialists like Totenberg in particular, that they use terms like "liberal" and "conservative" in a way that she, for one, admits isn't accurate (more fitting might be "conservative" and "ultra-conservative"). And after Bush v Gore, as Stephens pointed out, and with the rise of outcome- as opposed to ideology-based decisions, it's mystifying that journalists pretend the divide, at least among some justices like Thomas, Roberts, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, is "liberal" and "conservative" rather than "Republican" versus "Democratic."
posted by Gelatin at 5:27 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


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posted by ltl at 11:56 AM on July 18


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