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. Professor Jonathan Turley’s valentine to Justice John Paul Stevens left out a preposterous bias of his that Justice Stevens admits still shapes his opinions on capital punishment and targeting terrorists.

    Stevens is on record as being troubled that the U.S. shot down Admiral Yamamoto – the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor – with “no humanitarian concerns at all.” Why the admiral “had spent time in the United States and had friendships among high-ranking American officers,” as irrelevant as Stevens forgetting that the admiral also had a reputation for being a great poker player.

    I wonder if Stevens would’ve been so troubled by the shootdown if instead of serving as some deskbound code breaker, he’d had a few mates who were still alive and clawing at the hatches when the USS Arizona went down.

  2. Turley, did you know Ron Paul put forward your name to replace John Paul Stevens last night on Larry King Live???

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