Below is my column in USA Today on the passing of Associate Justice John Paul Stevens. I have another column appearing today in the Sunday Washington Post’s Outlook Section. I remain surprised by the comparatively light coverage of the passage of this great man who gave so much to the country. I disagreed with Stevens on various cases, but I always held him in the highest regard as a person and as a jurist.
Here is the column:
The last time I spoke with former Justice John Paul Stevens was in 2017 at a reception for Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch after his investiture on the Supreme Court. Stevens was sitting near a corner looking frail and alone. I went over and immediately teased him over my seething jealousy over his scoring tickets to Game 4 of the 2016 World Series. Both Stevens and I grew up ardent Chicago Cubs fans and Stevens just gave his signature smile, shrugged, and said, when you pass 90, “people are in a hurry to give you stuff.”
When Stevens passed last night at 99, most of us felt that we had not given him nearly enough. Stevens transformed this country in decades of decisions, but most people only have a passing knowledge of who he was. That is how he wanted it. No, he is not the “real RBG” or Scalia. He was not a rock star. He was a jurist who spoke entirely through his opinions and what he said has helped shape the lives of every American.
Stevens’ shaped American law
Few justices have left a footprint on American jurisprudence to match John Paul Stevens. It was not simply because he served 35 years — the third-longest in Supreme Court history. It was way that Stevens ruled. He wrote opinions that were anchored in simple, coherent values that he saw in the Constitution. Stevens changed on the court from a conservative to one of the most liberal justices in history. Along the way, he found his voice as a strong defender of individual rights and an advocate for a Constitution that must evolve with society — a living document capable of securing the guarantees of the Framers in a new and changing world.
His decisions remain the foundation for whole areas of law. He is the author of Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., — a decision that controls how agency decisions are reviewed and enforced by the courts. He wrote core cases under the First Amendment, the commerce clause and the Fourth Amendment that still define core rights for all Americans.
He had confidence in the underlying values of the Constitution that served as his guiding beacon. Thus, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Stevens would write the opinion supporting an enemy combatant who was stripped of all due process rights by being sent to Guantanamo Bay. Even such individuals warranted judicial review under the Constitution.
Passing of an anti-public figure
Yet, it is not just Stevens’ wisdom that should be missed. It is his style of judging. What is most remarkable about Stevens is that he resisted efforts to turn him into a public figure. Years ago, I wrote about the advent of the “celebrity justice” as members of the court became more active in speaking publicly to adorning crowds. These events often had strong ideological identifications. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were the most active and often created controversies over statements about pending cases or issues. The notion of judicial constituents did not sit well with some of us.
As justices actively sought public acclaim, the concern was that their public personas might influence their judicial perspective. Stevens never liked being pigeonholed by advocates. In 2007, Stevens told the New York Times “I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all.”
There was a time when public speaking was frowned upon by the court. Justices were supposed to speak entirely through their opinions and avoid the public spotlight. I have long favored that model and Stevens was the ultimate example of the traditional approach.
Stevens rarely spoke publicly and never craved the public acclaim. One time, Stevens and I were flying to Milwaukee on the same plane to speak at the Seventh Circuit Judicial Conference. A lawyer walked up and said that he was a big fan. To my surprise, he shook my hand. I then introduced him to Justice Stevens. The lawyer turned an ashen white and made a quick retreat. Stevens was so unknown by sight that when we were on the plane, I saw a woman hit Stevens in the head with her bag — not knowing that she was putting the future of Roe v. Wade one carry-on away from extinction.
Stevens to be missed in divided nation
Stevens was not without regrets. He regretted voting to restore the death penalty and would become one of its more fervent critics. He wrote in simple prose that was direct and clear. For example, Stevens wrote the opinion in Reno v. ACLU that the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) was unconstitutional, noting that “the interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.” There was nothing pretentious about his writing style. Yet, his opinions spoke clearly about rights that needed no embellishment or added flourish.
Stevens often spoke of our rights like a shared covenant of faith; a Constitution that bonds us all to core values. At a time of deepening divisions in this country, I will truly miss that voice. I will truly miss John Paul Stevens.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley.