Magazine article The New Yorker

I Told You So

Magazine article The New Yorker

I Told You So

Article excerpt


--Jeffrey Toobin

Since John Paul Stevens is still playing tennis (singles) at the age of ninety-four, it may not be surprising that he just finished his second book since resigning from the Supreme Court, four years ago. Stevens now splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Florida, and the other day he returned to the chambers assigned to a retired Justice looking the same as ever. He was wearing one of his trademark bow ties and speaking with lawyerly precision. "I'm not sure you should say I'm still a tennis player," he said. "I mean, I haven't played in a month."

Stevens's new book was prompted by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in 2012. "I read a newspaper story that said the federal database of criminal records might be incomplete because of a decision by the Supreme Court," he said. In the 1997 decision of Printz v. United States, the Justices held, over Stevens's dissent, that the federal government could not compel states to participate in background checks on gun purchasers. "I thought if that decision might be responsible for a situation like the one in Newtown they ought to change it. That got me to thinking that there had to be other rules that ought to be changed." The result of this process is his book "Six Amendments," which proposes a handful of changes to the Constitution that would undo what Stevens regards as disastrous errors by his colleagues over the course of his thirty-five-year tenure. An alternative title might be "Six Times I Was Right in the First Place."

Despite Stevens's great-grandfatherly mien, he remains ferociously competitive, still stewing over long-ago losses, like the Printz case, and indignant about more recent decisions that he regards as wrong. Take the Court's decision earlier this month in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, in which Chief Justice John Roberts's opinion for the five-to-four majority invalidated over-all limits on campaign contributions. "It's a grossly incorrect decision," Stevens said. "The very first sentence of the Chief Justice's opinion lays out a basic error in this whole jurisprudence. He says that there is 'no right more basic in our democracy' than to pick our elected officials. But the case is not about whether individuals can pick their own congressmen. It's about giving lots of campaign contributions, picking other people's congressmen, not your own."

One of Stevens's proposed amendments would undo the result in the famous Citizens United case, which was the occasion for his final major dissenting opinion, in 2010. …

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