Editor’s Note: Richard Lazarus is the Howard and Katherine Aibel Professor of Law at Harvard University, where he teaches environmental law, natural resources law, Supreme Court advocacy, and torts. He has represented the US, state and local governments, and environmental groups in the Supreme Court and is the author of the forthcoming book “The Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme Court.” The views expressed are his own.
Justice John Paul Stevens was remarkable in so many ways that even his death at the age of 99 comes as a surprise. He had published only two months earlier his biography, teasingly titled “The Making of a Justice: My First 94 Years.” And for those of us who practiced before the Supreme Court, it did seem like he might well live forever. After all, he was still swimming in the ocean every day and regularly playing tennis and golf well into his nineties.
Stevens, known for his penchant for wearing bow ties, had an extraordinary life and was an extraordinary justice – the second longest-serving in the court’s history at his retirement in 1990. Born and raised in Chicago, Stevens was often referred to as the “Illinois Justice.” He hobnobbed as a young child with the likes of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh when they were guests at his father’s Chicago hotel, The Stevens Hotel, which was then one of the nation’s largest hotels, boasting more than 3,000 rooms.
He was a stalwart Cubs fan who attended the World Series game at Wrigley field when Babe Ruth famously called his own home run. He proudly hung in his chambers a scorecard from that game. And in his late eighties even threw out a pitch at a Cubs game. His pitch of course was a strike right down the middle.
And he was an effective and influential justice, beloved by his colleagues on the court, and of course his loyal law clerks. In his early years, he had a deserved reputation as a maverick, often writing opinions on his own. But over time he became the Jedi Master of cobbling together majority opinions in favor of his liberal views, even as the court around him grew increasingly conservative. Indeed, when accused by conservatives of becoming more liberal over time, Stevens always forcefully insisted that his views had not changed, only the leaning of his fellow justices had.
Unfailingly polite at oral argument, he would invariably begin his questions by asking permission of the advocate to ask a question. But no matter how politely poised, his questions were invariably dagger-like, aimed right at the central weakness of the lawyer’s argument. Many of the nation’s best lawyers saw their entire cases unravel in seconds after receiving a Stevens question at argument.
Stevens was proudly patriotic, and loved his country. He served in the Navy in World War II. Many believe his military service explained his dissenting vote in Texas v. Johnson, when the court struck down as unconstitutional a state law that made it a crime to burn a flag.
For Stevens, the flag was “more than a proud symbol of the courage, the determination, and the gifts of nature that transformed 13 fledgling Colonies into a world power. It is a symbol of freedom, of equal opportunity, of religious tolerance, and of good will for other peoples who share our aspirations.”
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President Gerald Ford appointed Stevens to the court in 1975 and was later sharply criticized by many Republicans when it became clear that Stevens would not be a reliably conservative vote. Not long before his own death, Ford responded to his critics in a letter to Stevens. Ford’s words made clear his tremendous pride in Stevens’s record as a justice: “I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination thirty years ago of John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
President Ford deserves our nation’s gratitude for such an inspired choice for the high court. On Tuesday, the nation lost a great American and a great justice. In deserved tribute, the doors of the Supreme Court are already draped in black.