Editor's Note: Scotus Journal is an occasional CNN feature on the U.S. Supreme Court. Bill Mears has covered the court and legal issues for CNN since 2002. He has reported on four high court confirmations and major cases across the country. Before that, he covered politics and national security for CNN.
Washington (CNN) -- John Paul Stevens is retired from the U.S. Supreme Court, but a feeling of bench envy seems to linger, judging by comments this week on current hot-button cases.
It is rare for former justices to speak out on issues of the day, and even more unusual to criticize your colleagues. But Stevens -- who turned 91 a few weeks ago -- has never been one to hold his tongue.
In a speech Tuesday in New York, Stevens criticized the court's March ruling permitting hateful anti-gay rhetoric aimed at mourners attending military funerals. The angry picketing by a Kansas-based church had attracted nationwide attention. Stevens said that if he were still on the bench, Justice Samuel Alito would not have been alone in his dissent.
"It involved a verbal assault on private citizens attending the funeral of their son -- a Marine corporal killed in Iraq," Stevens said. "To borrow Sam's phrase, the First Amendment does not transform solemn occasions like funerals into free-fire zones."
The recent group of justices has tried mightily to reinforce the idea that despite their ideological differences on tough issues, they really do get along personally.
"Sometimes, when justices use unnecessarily strong language in their opinions, readers may infer they do not like or respect one another," said Stevens, who earned a reputation as the court's leading liberal during his tenure. "Nothing could be further from the truth. He expressed his "admiration" for Alito's work as a justice.
With his thick glasses, gentle smile, and bowties, Stevens is known as one of the nicest, most cordial of justices. But his words can on occasion be razor sharp. While praising Alito in one sentence, Stevens in the next said his conservative colleague "was quite wrong" in a June ruling tossing out a restrictive handgun ban in Chicago. That 5-4 decision was a boost for the idea the Second Amendment offers individual rights of handgun ownership. Stevens had dissented, one the last case he participated in before stepping down in June.
In a separate speech Monday, Stevens also slammed a high court decision, also from March, with the majority ruling against a former death row inmate who sought damages from the state after prosecutors hid crucial blood tests that would have earlier proven his innocence.
Nothing the "shocking facts" of the case, Stevens made clear had he been still on the court, he would have ruled for the onetime prisoner, who was later exonerated. Stevens, who has long opposed the death penalty, criticized Justice Antonin Scalia's belief that no high-level prosecutorial misconduct occurred. Scalia, said Stevens, had "either overlooked or chosen to ignore the fact that bad-faith, knowing violations may be caused by improper supervision," which would make a district attorney's office liable in a lawsuit.
The nine justices had not seen much of Stevens in recent months. Despite having a small office at the court, a perk reserved for retired justices, court sources said the Chicago native had not been there from November through late April, preferring to spend much of the winter months at his south Florida condo. Having "senior" status allows Stevens to maintain chambers and sit in on lower federal court cases if he chooses -- but not Supreme Court cases -- an option he has yet to pursue.
But he has been busy, telling an interviewer recently he was finishing up a book on the five chief justices he had worked with in the past 65 years or so. That includes the current head of the federal judiciary, John Roberts. He even has a title he likes: "The Five Chiefs."
High praise for Stevens from newest members
Stevens may be off the court, be his influence as a mentor to the newest justices remains strong. Court sources say he has been a friend and confidant to Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Kagan replaced Stevens and has relied on his advice about making the transition as a judge, a job she had never held until being sworn in to bench in August. Those sources say he has privately raved about the talents and abilities of both women, viewing them as strong additions to the high-powered court.
Sotomayor last week acknowledged Stevens' assistance and friendship in her first year, telling a Princeton audience that he boosted her confidence. Such quiet acknowledgment by a respected peer, can make all the difference, said Sotomayor, particularly for young lawyers just starting out in the business.
The Bronx native, who turns 57 this month, said her early career was marked by a subtly dismissive attitude from many male lawyers.
"Those things, they don't realize, can have an effect on you. They can be demoralizing at times. I don't think to the young women in the room that I can make a promise that you won't experience it; the likelihood is that you will," she said.
"Your challenge will be, as it was for me and as it was for every accomplished woman in the room, to understand that it should not undermine your confidence in yourself. You have to recognize it, accept it for what it is and push past it."
A courtly visit by Prince Charles
What was supposed to be a quiet reunion of onetime college scholars turned into a surprise celebrity event, thanks to a member of British royalty.
Prince Charles visited the Supreme Court this week to meet with an alumni gathering of Marshall Scholars. The host was Justice Stephen Breyer, himself a 1959 recipient of the prestigious overseas scholarship. He escorted the Price of Wales up the court steps and into the private reception.
Similar to the privately-funded Rhodes Scholarship, Marshall Scholars are top American college students invited to spend a year of study at a British university. Named after George C. Marshall, the former general and secretary of state, the program is funded by the British government. It was founded in 1953 as a living gift to the U.S.
Prince Charles made the stop as part of a brief visit to Washington, just days after his son William married Kate Middleton in a widely-viewed royal wedding in London.