A biography of the justice who has become the anchor of the US Supreme Court's liberal wing.
In the weeks since he announced plans to retire from the US Supreme
Court at the end of the current term, John Paul Stevens has
frequently been portrayed as a throwback to a bygone era.
After 35 terms, Stevens will depart as the fourth longest- serving
justice in American history, as well as the court's sole
Midwesterner, only Protestant, and last World War II veteran.
Perhaps most significantly, on a court where all eight of his
colleagues vote pretty much as was expected at the time of their
appointments, Stevens is also the last enigma. How did this
bow-tie-clad moderate appointed by Republican President Gerald Ford
come to anchor the court's liberal wing?
Bill Barnhart and Gene Schlickman set out to answer that question in
John Paul Stevens: An Independent Life. That title pretty much sums
up their theory and governing principle: that he exhibited the same
independence as a justice that he did earlier in life. But by
devoting roughly two-thirds of the narrative to Stevens's precourt
life, his tenure as a justice winds up getting short shrift.
To be sure, Stevens has witnessed a remarkably long span of American
history. He was born to one of Chicago's wealthiest families, and
watched their hotel fortune vanish during the Great Depression. He
served as an Army code breaker during World War II, an experience
which seemed to fuel his passionate dissent from the court's 1989
decision striking down a law banning flag burning.
But Stevens's career as an antitrust lawyer and federal appellate
judge does not make for reading as interesting as the biographies of
others who have served on the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Earl
Warren, a three-term California governor, or Justice Ruth Bader
Ginsburg, who had been a pioneering women's rights lawyer, would
have both merited biographies even if they had never become justices.
Stevens's early life and career matter only to the extent they
inform his tenure as a justice. And try as hard as Barnhart and
Schlickman might to shoehorn his life into the narrative of an
independent-minded maverick, it ends up feeling forced.
The authors do reveal some interesting biographical details.
Stevens's father was arrested on charges of fraud related to the
family business in 1933, and two weeks later armed robbers burst into
the family's home. A jury later convicted his father, though the
verdict was ultimately overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court. …