Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the most distinguished jurists of modern times, died on Tuesday. The author of more than 400 decisions as well as notable dissents in cases including Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, Justice Stevens was considered a "judge's judge," intensely patriotic without being partisan, free of ideological baggage, and devoted to the rule of law. Former President Gerald Ford praised Stevens in 2005, saying "I am prepared to allow history's judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessarily exclusively) on my nomination thirty years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens." Chief Justice John Roberts noted that Stephens, in addition to his "unrelenting commitment to justice," served with "an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom, and independence."
As I explored more about his life today, I was struck by how Stevens was not content to rest on his laurels, but rather continually pushed himself out of his comfort zone. His graduate study in English was interrupted by World War II, where he put his analytical skills to work as a code-breaker for the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater. He originally made his mark as an antitrust lawyer, first in as an associate in private practice, then as associate counsel to a U.S. House committee investigating antitrust activities, then, only three years after admission to the bar, as an antitrust litigator and partner in a firm he co-founded. Widely respected for his expertise, he wrote influential articles and taught at the University of Chicago and Northwestern law schools while remaining active as a litigator.
Stevens could have remained a respected antitrust scholar and practitioner, but in 1969 he took on the thankless task of serving as counsel to a commission formed to investigate corruption allegations against two sitting members of the Illinois Supreme Court. The commission was evidently expected to perform only a perfunctory investigation, for the person bringing the charges was a well-known conspiracy theorist with little credibility. Nevertheless, Stevens conducted a vigorous investigation which verified the allegations and ultimately led to in the resignation of both the current and a former chief justice. His refusal to take half measures led to considerable acclaim, an appointment to the Seventh Circuit by President Nixon, and ultimately to his appointment in 1975 to the U.S. Supreme Court where he served with distinction for 35 years.
It's not unusual for law students or lawyers to form a narrow view of their own abilities. Knowing they are competent in one area of doctrine or in one application, they allow that expertise to bind them into a narrow view of what they can and should do, rather than exploring how their expertise in one arena could translate into competence and even brilliance in another or a wider field. John Paul Stevens could have made his mark only as an English scholar, or only as a Bronze Star code-breaker, or only as a litigator, or only as a law professor. But he continually stretched to do more, developing expertise in constitutional law and new skills on the Court like coalition-building. And even after retirement at age 90, he stretched himself more, writing three books over the next nine years. His belief in constantly stretching himself to do more and better work can be an inspiration to all of us to not content ourselves in one narrow path. (Nancy Luebbert)