Tribute to Justice John Paul Stevens

By Calabresi, Steven G. | Northwestern University Law Review, April 1, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Tribute to Justice John Paul Stevens


Calabresi, Steven G., Northwestern University Law Review


It is an honor to pay tribute to a man who truly needs no tributes- Justice John Paul Stevens of the Class of 1947. Justice Stevens was born in 1920 here in Chicago, Illinois, and he graduated from Northwestern Law School sixty-four years ago with the highest grade point average ever earned up to that time in the history of the law school. He served on the United States Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010, when he retired at the age of ninety after the third-longest tenure in the Court's history. During his thirty-five years on the high court, he wrote many landmark opinions on subjects like the constitutionality of term limits, the line item veto, the death penalty, and the freedom of speech and of religion. Justice Stevens's opinion in Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. NRDC1 revolutionized the field of administrative law while his famous dissents in the flag burning case and in Bush v. Gore2 inspired many critics of the Supreme Court. Justice Stevens's opinions were exceptionally well written and well crafted, and he enjoyed a sterling reputation as an intellectual leader on the Supreme Court. He started out strong in 1975, and, if anything, his opinions got even better in his last fifteen years on the Supreme Court. For all of my adult lifetime, Justice Stevens has been the gold standard for excelling in the art of being a Supreme Court justice. He is quite simply, as one of my best conservative friends said, "a class act."3

The ancient Greeks wrote that a good man is one who is wise, brave, moderate, and just. Justice Stevens exhibited all four of these virtues during his tenure on the Supreme Court. First, Justice Stevens exhibited wisdom by repeatedly exercising sound judgment in practical affairs. Justice Stevens was neither an abstract philosopher on the bench nor was he a Justice who was influenced by his emotions rather than by his mind. Practical wisdom is the virtue of having common sense and foresight, of being able to weigh competing values and give each of them their due. Justice Stevens exhibited practical wisdom, in my view, when he wrote majority opinions for the Court striking down state-imposed term limits on members of Congress4 and a statutorily conferred line item veto for the President.5 Justice Stevens reached the right result in those two cases by looking forward and by thinking deeply. Justice Stevens exhibited wisdom during his tenure on the bench.

Second, Justice Stevens was brave from the start of his tenure up to the day of his retirement. He was not afraid to buck the conventional wisdom and practice. Justice Stevens did this in a small way by wearing his trademark bow tie for which he was renowned during his tenure on the bench. This was surely an affirmation of individual independence. But Justice Stevens was also brave in more important ways by fighting vigorously in case after case for the values he believed in even when he was often in dissent. Justice Stevens repeatedly and vociferously challenged the view of five of his colleagues on the scope of sovereign immunity,6 a battle that he never won but never gave up on. He fought similar battles on the scope of the commerce power,7 the constitutionality in various settings of imposition of the death penalty,8 and the balance as to how much federal courts ought to defer to executive branch interpretations of law.9 In short, Justice Stevens was brave as well as wise.

Third, Justice Stevens was moderate during his tenure on the Court. He was a paragon of self-control and self-restraint both in talking with his colleagues and subordinates and in the opinions he wrote and the speeches he gave. Justice Stevens arrived on the Supreme Court in 1975 at a time in American history when the virtues of self-control and self-discipline were in short supply.

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