David S. Friedman

Justice Stevens — fair, independent, and modest

By David S. Friedman
April 10, 2010

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AS JOHN Paul Stevens announces his retirement from the Supreme Court just a week before his 90th birthday, the public is just getting to know this modest and independent judge who has served on the court for 35 years. I had the honor to work for him and see firsthand the lasting imprint he will leave on the court.

Stevens has always thought of himself first and foremost as a lawyer, not a judge. In his chambers, he would tell stories about antitrust cases that he handled in private practice 40 years earlier, with entertaining details about a particular lawyer or judge. He took special pride in leading a special investigation of judicial corruption in Chicago in 1969. His probe was notable not only for results (it exposed corruption that led two Illinois Supreme Court judges to resign), but also speed (he completed the investigation in just six weeks).

His lawyerly interest in understanding the facts of each case helps explain his fierce independence. Stevens has resisted, and bemoaned, the Court’s frequent division into two blocs, “liberal’’ and “conservative.’’ He always starts with the facts, hoping that relevant details will offer a way to escape rigid ideology. Unlike many of his colleagues, he has always written his own first drafts of opinions – and he always spent the most time on the facts.

His most famous opinion may be his powerful dissent in Bush vs. Gore, where he wrote that the majority’s decision would damage “the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.’’ Yet it would be wrong to label Justice Stevens a “liberal.’’ He may have voted against the Bush campaign’s legal position – but he also wrote the Court’s opinion in Clinton vs. Jones, holding that President Clinton could be sued like any other citizen and did not have temporary immunity while holding office. His writings display a commitment to the rule of law, and he does not let politics or personal prejudice get in the way.

Stevens’s independence and commitment to principles of law were, indeed, the very reasons for his appointment. In 1975, President Ford faced a divided nation still recovering from Watergate. He sought a justice of the highest integrity and professional talent. Relying on advice from Attorney General Edward Levi, Ford nominated Stevens, whom the Senate confirmed by a 98-0 vote.

Stevens embraced this awesome responsibility with great modesty. He had been a Supreme Court law clerk to Justice Wiley Rutledge and had an impressive career before joining the court. Yet on the golf course, he introduces himself simply as “a lawyer.’’ When my co-clerks and I presented him with an autographed photo of Michael Jordan for his birthday, he seemed amazed that his hometown hero would send him a personal note.

Stevens will be remembered for his humility, civility, and sense of humor (and, yes, his bow ties). His lasting impact on the Court and the nation will be his lucid opinions, but also his respectful and civil approach to the law, approaches his colleagues — and all of us — can carry forward.

David S. Friedman is senior vice president/special counsel for the Boston Red Sox. He served as a law clerk to Justice Stevens in 1997-98.

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