John Paul Stevens: The Uncalled Shot

Below is today’s column on the retirement of Associate Justice John Paul Stevens.

On Oct. 1, 1932, a ruby-faced 12-year-old boy sat with his father in Wrigley Field as Babe Ruth took the plate. For everyone in the stadium, it would be a defining moment of history – when Babe Ruth pointed his bat at the center field bleachers seconds before the pitch by Cubs Pitcher Charlie Root in Game 3 of the World Series. When Ruth then hit the Yankee homerun into the bleachers, it became known as the famed “called ball.” However, none of the people that day in the packed stadium knew that their brush with greatness was not the Bambino on the field but the bambino in the stands. His name was John Paul Stevens, and his decisions would shape their lives far more fundamentally than the legacy of Babe Ruth.

Stevens’ career, which will soon end with his announced retirement, took a trajectory quite different from Babe Ruth’s. He was the ultimate “uncalled shot.” He was put on the court by President Gerald Ford as a reliable conservative who later became the court’s liberal. While Ford pointed over the right field, Stevens ended up in the left field – leading a determined cadre of liberal justices after the departure of such William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall. Yet even after this transition from a conservative to a liberal jurist, he would continue defy predictions and put the ball precisely where he felt it should go, including in the right field. He would break from the left wing on issues like flag burning in Texas v. Johnson while rallying liberal justices in his recent decision in Citizens United in favor of corporate campaign limits.

A voice for equality

Stevens’ retirement remains an understandably sad moment for liberals. It is not just the loss of one of the clearest voices for civil liberties and equality. It is the departure of the last of the court’s “greatest generation.” Stevens served on the court under three chief justices (Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and the current chief, John Roberts) and seven presidents (Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama). During that time, he served on the court during the heyday of liberal jurisprudence with Warren, William Brennan, John Marshall, and Harry Blackmun. He replaced another iconic figure of the left: William Douglas. For constitutional scholars it is like watching the loss of World War II veterans and wondering whether we could ever muster that type of courage and clarity again.

We are also seeing the end of a model of a justice with Stevens that has been largely lost on the more camera-ready generation of jurists. Stevens tended to avoid the limelight and celebrity status. He never wanted rock-star status. A few years ago, Stevens and I were on the same flight to a judicial conference where we were going to speak to judges in Milwaukee. I was speaking to Stevens when a man bounded across the airport gate area saying, “I am one of your biggest fans.” He then proceeded to shake my hand. When I then introduced to him to Justice Stevens, he turned beet red and made a fast retreat. Later, on the plane, a woman actually hit Stevens with her carry-on without a clue that she was endangering the future of Roe v. Wade. That is how Stevens likes it. A man who helped transform this country can get on a flight with his wife looking like any pensioner on vacation.

Modern justices appear to relish celebrity status, appearing at conservative and liberal conferences to speak to the faithful. This has caused increasing controversies as justices expound on cases still pending before the court or appear to validate political movements. Stevens believes that a justice should solely speak through his or her opinions. It seems a rather quaint notion today when we have justices seen disagreeing with the president during a State of the Union while others do virtual speaking tours at schools and conferences. Stevens’ generation not only displayed greater judicial vision but greater personal discretion.

A humble servant

For Stevens, it was never about him. That is why he could evolve so thoroughly in his judicial views. He wanted to get cases right and didn’t much care about the calls from the “bench jockeys.” He was humble enough to allow himself to change, to grow on the court.

By design, he will now walk down those famous steps of the Supreme Court and simply blend into the crowd. He will leave as he came: an honest and quiet man who became great by deeds rather than by design. He knows that his fellow Chicagoans have a spot in the bleachers and a 36-ounce warm beer waiting to welcome him back. Of course, not much has changed for the Cubbies, but that 12-year-old kid sure proved something of a slugger in his own right.

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

23 thoughts on “John Paul Stevens: The Uncalled Shot”

  1. Justice Steven’s retirement is the end of an era. President Obama could make Justice Stevens proud by naming a true progressive scholar to the Court. Since he let Prof. Dawn Johnsen wither on the vine as his nominee for head of the OLC, maybe he can repay her by naming her to the Supreme Court! If not her, then Prof. Turley would be another great choice.

  2. Yeah, the kill line was sort of a joke. Still gotta say, prof, that thar is some real fancy word spreadin’.

  3. Professor Turley,

    Kudos, that was a moving and heartfelt tribute!


    Great clip!

    Justice John Paul Stevens,

    Thank-you, I am so very grateful for your many years of dedicated service to our country and hope you enjoy a lengthy, happy, healthy and joyful retirement!

  4. Federalist society likes Elena Kagan, a LOT, according to Glen Greenwald who sees the Federalist society as a bad thing. So why is Professor Turley against her, despite being a supporter of the Federalist society? I mean, christ, you were for Robert Bork.

  5. I have a question for Professor Turley or any experts on the SCOTUS. Isn’t the SCOTUS already far leaning to the right? I mean its 5 conservatives to 4 liberals or moderate liberals, right?

    I’m confused why they’re saying on the news that if the President picks a moderate conservative or conservative that it could “shift the balance of power in the court to the right”. I don’t get that. Isn’t it already shifted there?

    I mean has there been any major rulings anyone can remember in the last few years (since Roberts and Alito moved in) that I am not aware of? This ruling on the corporations being able to influence federal elections. How could there be any current balance on the court with decisions like that?

    It seems to me that the court is already leaning to the right.

    If President Obama were to appoint a conservative or moderate conservative or even a moderate liberal, wouldn’t that just lean it so far to the right that it’d likely tip over? How much further to the right can this court be?

    Am I right or am I missing something here?

  6. We can only hope that his replacement will be half the jurist he is…

    Professor Turley (and others here with informed opinions),

    In anticipation of President Obama’s second SCOTUS nomination, I am curious as to your impression of Judge Sotomayor so far. I know that it is a very small sample size, but has your opinion of her changed in any way since her confirmation?

  7. BVM,

    Guess what, at least he was fairly elected, even if your claim that he should not be president is valid. Bush, Cheney or Rove all stole ballot boxes in Florida and Ohio. Ask those GOP Operatives who they worked for when they are sentenced for rigging the elections in favor of the GOP.

    I firmly believe that once Bush, Rove and Cheney learned who was going to be on the ballot under the GOP name they made a deal with Obama if he won that he would not prosecute them. Now I may be wrong, but with as much election stealing and tampered boxes that are coming to light, you could see my point.

    You know when water runs its course it will go its natural way. You on the other hand are like a sand bar in the ocean. Not enough substance to cause any real harm but yet one needs to be mindful of the potential for disaster.

  8. Only a fool would trust anything Obama says or does. He is a pathological liar / murderer and legally not authorized to appoint anyone.

  9. frankdwog:

    “I would kill to have someone write such a glowing tribute to my lifes work.”


    You need not kill, Frankdawg, merely achieve.

  10. JT:

    “By design, he will now walk down those famous steps of the Supreme Court and simply blend into the crowd. He will leave as he came: an honest and quiet man who became great by deeds rather than by design.”


    A fitting tribute to a humble man with little to be humble about. Your image of the Justice walking into anonymity from the SCOTUS steps channels a bygone notion of citizen-statesman and citizen-leader charged with a solemn duty to serve his fellows without fanfare or self-aggrandizement. It’s as old as Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, and as current as Twelve Angry Men, whose imagery I am sure your were alluding to being a member of your generation, which by the way has its own claim to fame along with that of our more spotlighted predecessors (about 7:27 for the scene):

  11. I would kill to have someone write such a glowing tribute to my lifes work. Thanks for the fabulous essay & thanks to Justice Stevens for the lifelong commitment to making this a better country.

  12. Beware of the gleam in BVM’s eyes – it may just be the sun shining through the hole in his head

  13. An open question to @BuenaVistaMall: What planet are you from? Do you really believe that claptrap you spent time to type in or are you a shill for Fox Noize and the tea pishers? Geez… I’m all for opposing views but not blatant Bravo Sierra. Dude… I know you folks on Winston-Salem are on the edge between civilization and the sticks, but you’re not Mount Pilot. Come join us in the real world… the water is just fine here.

  14. I’m a 39 year old “white” male. It’s stunning to think about how much better my life has been thanks to the so-called “liberal” era of the SCOTUS during my lifetime. Some aspects of our society and economy really are zero-sum games, and as a result of countless rulings, I have missed out on many unearned, undeserved advantages and privileges that earlier generations of “white” men had – I’m perfectly happy with that. Without the removal of formal segregation in the decade before I was born, I wouldn’t have had many of the lifelong friendships that I have. I can look across my office and see women who have the opportunity to thrive and prosper based on their talents and intellects. I’m lucky to live in an America where racists and chauvinists belie the fact that they know they’re just plain wrong with how they verbally squirm and dodge.

    But there is a long, long way to go yet, and many other challenges. Are we going to continue to blend corporate interests with the government? Are we going to continue down the path of a crumbling empire by cutting corners when the rule of law seems risky or difficult?

  15. And to think that I still have a hard time thinking of him as a liberal is amusing. He has out done some of my predictions and his voice will be sorely missed.

    I may have this wrong as I was told this by a professor that helped write the UCC. Is as follows is that when Rehnquist was clerking for Jackson he was assured a position by a woman in authority at the time, Eleanor Roosevelt. It was always questionable what position he assumed with her.

  16. Obama cannot legally appoint a Supreme stooge or anyone else. Obama is NOT the president.

    Obama is a War Criminal. He has been a War Criminal for several years in funding, conspiring and waging Wars of Aggression. He should Not have been placed on the ballots. He should Not have been certified by the Congress. Obama should Not have been sworn in by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. These acts were unconstitutional, felonious and treasonous. Obama could be arrested at any time by the U.S. Government, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. for War Crimes and a multitude of other charges.

    Obama is complicit in prisoner torture by blocking investigation and prosecution of these war crimes.

    Obama does NOT have a U.S. Birth Certificate. He is an illegal alien. Where is the Birth Certificate?

  17. sadly, leaders such as you describe are lacking in todays cesspool of politics and justice?

  18. oops you forgot the esteemed William Renquist…I can hear the conspiracists blogging your liberal cabal demise ….right now…

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