John Paul Stevens: An Independent Life

By Stern, Seth | The Christian Science Monitor, April 28, 2010 | Go to article overview

John Paul Stevens: An Independent Life


Stern, Seth, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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