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The Humane Legacy of John Paul Stevens

John Paul Stevens, who served on the Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010 and died Tuesday, at the age of ninety-nine, belonged to a vanished tradition on the Court and in American life: moderate Republicanism. By the time he left the Court, during the tenure of John Roberts as Chief Justice, Stevens was the senior member of the Court’s liberal wing—which was evidence, mostly, of how far the Court turned to the right during his long tenure.

Stevens was appointed to the Court by Gerald Ford, who also looks today like a representative of a vanished strain within the G.O.P. Stevens’s and Ford’s views in the nineteen-seventies were roughly in line with those of moderate Republicans on the Court, such as Potter Stewart and Harry Blackmun. Like them, Stevens supported abortion rights, some forms of affirmative action (especially in university admissions), and limits on Presidential power. These were once mainstream views among leading Republicans—and they are still supported by most Americans—but the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 began a transformation of the Party and of the Supreme Court.

Stevens kept a low public profile for most of his time on the Court, but he was always a canny behind-the-scenes strategist, working with frequent (but not constant) allies like Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy to preserve fragile majorities on such issues as abortion and the treatment of the detainees at Guantánamo. Stevens frequently duelled with his ideological (and temperamental) opposite, Antonin Scalia, who won many of the biggest battles between them. Unlike Scalia, Stevens was invariably courteous, even in defeat. But the most famous words that Stevens wrote on the Court came from his rightly indignant dissenting opinion in Bush v. Gore. In response to his colleagues’ decision to shut down the recount of votes in Florida, and thus award the 2000 Presidential election to George W. Bush, Stevens wrote, “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.”



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