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Interview with a Supreme Court Justice: Stevens' Opinions

published November 03, 2005

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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( 77 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
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John Paul Stevens is the Supreme Court's oldest sitting member (he's 81). He is second in tenure only to Chief Justice William Rehnquist. And he is arguably the current court's wisest member.

By "wisest," we do not mean that Stevens is necessarily the most intellectually gifted justice. Nor do we mean that his opinions are necessarily the most just.

Interview with a Supreme Court Justice: Stevens' Opinions

No, what we mean by "wisest" is that the man is reasonable. Whatever his judicial leanings (and he leans left), Stevens has earned a reputation on the high court as a smart and thorough thinker-a learned and honorable man who states his opinions with clarity and force but never shouts or bullies. He is a throwback to a less rancorous era, when law and politics were noble pursuits, not blood sports. The man is sensible. He is decent. He wears bow ties without irony. Call him the elder statesman of American justice.

Perhaps it's Stevens's midwestern heritage-and a lifetime of legal achievement-that account for his grounded judicial temperament. He was born in Chicago and received an AB in English literature from the University of Chicago in 1941. From 1942 to 1945, he served in the U.S. Navy, earning a Bronze Star. He graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 1947 and received the highest grades given by the school up to that time. After clerking for Supreme Court justice Wiley Rutledge in 1947-48, Stevens worked at two Chicago law firms from 1949 to 1970, then served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago, from 1970 to 1975. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1975 by President Gerald Ford.

Now, as he begins his 27th year on the high court, Justice Stevens appears to be nearing retirement. The average age of the last five justices to leave the bench is 81, and rumors of departure have been circulating around Stevens (as well as Justices Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor) for several years.

JD Jungle contributing editor Susan Estrich, who clerked for Stevens in 1977-78, spoke to the justice recently about everything from his law career to your law career to the Court and the law today.

His reflections are, of course, wise.

Susan Estrich What's your first memory of law school?
John Paul Stevens I was intimidated. The dean at Northwestern was Leon Green, an old-fashioned teacher who made everyone in the class stand up when he or she recited. He made a point of making young law students learn that being in court is a tough job, and you should learn to get pushed around by whoever's in charge.

Estrich Did you get pushed around?
Stevens I did, and everybody else did, too. Most of my classmates had been officers in the war-they weren't timid souls. But he inspired fear in all of us.

Estrich What's your best memory of law school?
Stevens I remember several inspiring teachers-Green . . . Nat Nathanson. Nathanson taught constitutional law and ad law, and I still think about him in my work. I had a wonderful class, too. I'm still convinced it's the best class that ever went through the school. I also remember playing bridge during the noon hour, but Dean Green, when he found out about that, he put an end to it.

Estrich Did you have legal heroes in law school?
Stevens I'd say Justices [Benjamin] Cardozo, [Louis] Brandeis, and [Oliver Wendell] Holmes were heroes-and later Wiley Rutledge. They were generally the heroes of the profession, and I admired the opinions they had written. I gave a speech just last night in which I quoted a favorite remark by Justice Cardozo: "The work of a judge would be impossible if he couldn't lay his course on the basis of the bricks that had been laid by the men who had gone before."

Estrich Were you good at law school?
Stevens To be honest, I was. My grades were all A's.

Estrich Do you remember how you felt after you took the bar exam?
Stevens Actually, I thought it was easy. The only thing I worried about was that I finished early, and I started wondering why everybody else was still taking the exam. I began to think maybe I'd blown it. I probably should have been more concerned about flunking. Now and then, some very good students do. You never know.

Estrich What was the first case you worked on after law school?
Stevens I was an assistant to Ed Johnston, the senior partner of the firm I went with [Poppenhusen, Johnston, Thompson, and Raymond]. It was an antitrust case.

Estrich What did you do?
Stevens I carried the books and did the legal research. I didn't have a case of my own for some time.

Estrich Is there one case you've worked on over the years that you're especially proud of?
Stevens Yes, Groppi v. Leslie. It was decided when I was on the Court of Appeals. It was about a priest who had demonstrated on the floor of the Wisconsin Legislature against some of the state's treatment of the underprivileged. He was held in contempt without a trial, and the court sustained the contempt finding. I wrote a dissent on the Court of Appeals in the en banc hearing, and the case was ultimately reversed in the Supreme Court. It was important to me for reasons that I won't try to cover in a brief interview. But its importance relates to the independence of the judiciary and calling them like you see them.

Estrich What's your favorite book about the law?
Stevens If I had to pick one in a hurry, I'd pick Cardozo's The Nature of the Judicial Process. That's one I often look at.

Estrich In law school, did you ever think about becoming a Supreme Court justice?
Stevens No.

Estrich When did the thought occur?
Stevens When President Ford called me on the phone.

Estrich Not even when you were on the circuit court?
Stevens I guess every judge thinks about that as a possibility, but I can't say I thought about it as a realistic possibility. I figured the odds were kind of long.

Estrich How did you find out that you'd been nominated to the Supreme Court?
Stevens I was nominated on the day after Thanksgiving in 1975. I knew that I was under consideration a few days earlier. Shortly after Justice [William] Douglas resigned, Bob Sprecher, a fellow judge on the Court of Appeals, called me and said that the American Bar Association had contacted him to ask him about me because they had been asked to do background checks on people under consideration. There were stories in the newspapers that gave the so-called preferred list. But I didn't know that I was actually going to be the president's choice until that day after Thanksgiving. I was in the office and the phone rang and somebody said, "The White House is calling." Then President Ford told me he had decided to appoint me.

Estrich What went through your head?
Stevens I was delighted, of course, and humbled. It's a very moving experience.

Estrich Did you celebrate?
Stevens It's a strange story. My good friend Phil Tone, who was also on the Court of Appeals, was also one of those considered. Between the time the vacancy occurred and the actual appointment, we met and agreed that if either of us heard from the White House, he would immediately tell the other. So the president called that day, late in the morning, and he asked me not to tell anyone the news because they wanted to announce it from Washington and not have it leaked. I said, "Well, Mr. President, I have this understanding with Judge Tone." I explained, and the president said, "I think he'll understand if you just tell him I asked you not to say anything about it." I honored his request-I guess I did tell my mother-and later that day, the phone rang, and it was the White House again. This time, it wasn't President Ford but someone else. He said, "The president told us about your agreement with Judge Tone. You can go tell Judge Tone now because we're going to announce it in about half an hour." It seemed to me quite an insight into the kind of person the president is that he would understand why that was important to me. Phil Tone walked into the office at that moment-the rumor was already all over the building-and congratulated me.

Estrich You're the oldest justice on a court that's delicately balanced between conservatives and liberals. Do you feel pressure not to retire in order to maintain that balance?
Stevens No, I don't. Retirement is something I'll have to decide on when I think I'm no longer able to function as effectively as I should. There's a balance, because on the one hand, you have a special asset in having the experience on the Court that some of the others don't have. On the other hand, you always have to guard against the danger that you're relying more on law clerks than you should be and not doing your own work.

Estrich On this Court, you're frequently in the minority. Is that frustrating?
Stevens That's something one never is happy about-it's been true since I was on the Court of Appeals. When you're in dissent, you know one of two things: Either the court's wrong or you're wrong, and you don't want either of those things to be true. So you'd rather not be in dissent. There's no doubt about that.

Estrich There's been a great deal of speculation in the wake of Bush v. Gore that this court is now bitterly divided. Do you and your colleagues get along?
Stevens Yes, we get along.

Estrich Can you give an example?
Stevens Well, if you ask any member of the Court about personal relationships, you'll find that everybody will give you the same answer, and everyone is speaking truthfully.

Estrich Because of Bush v. Gore, many people think of this Court as inherently political. Your own dissent took on the Court quite eloquently. In light of that, how do you maintain respect for the Court as an institution?
Stevens There are aspects of that question that could take a long time to answer. I think the way all of us try to maintain respect for the Court is by continuing to do our work as best we can.

Estrich Do you think that decision has had a bad effect on the public or on the court?
Stevens That's one case I'd just as soon not talk more about.

Estrich The process of nominating justices to the Court has become bitterly political. Is that bad for America?
Stevens I'd rather not summarize my views off the top of my head, but I think it's become more political than it should be.

Estrich Since you started your career, what's the biggest change in the way law is practiced?
Stevens When I was first hired, it was by a firm that hired four lawyers at the time and jumped from 24 to 28, and that was a major law firm. Now that's called a boutique. Today you have these huge law firms, and I don't understand how they can be managed effectively and have everyone act as professionally as they have to.

Estrich Do you think the emphasis on salaries has changed the law for the worse?
Stevens I don't know, but it does seem strange that a young lawyer a year out of law school, or a year after clerking, immediately makes more money than the judge for whom he or she was working.

Estrich If you were graduating from law school today, would you go to a large firm? Or would you strike out on your own?
Stevens I think I might well go to a firm for a few years. That's what I did. I spent four years with [Poppenhusen, Johnston, Thompson, and Raymond], then two of the other lawyers and I left and formed our own firm [Rothschild, Stevens, Barry, and Myers]. I think it's important to get practical experience.

Estrich A lot of law students struggle with whether they should take a high-paying corporate law job or follow their ideals into something lower-paying but more personally rewarding. What's your advice?
Stevens Well, my advice comes from a period when the average law school graduate didn't have staggering loans to pay off. That said, I'd repeat the advice that Willard Pedrick, an instructor at Northwestern, gave to me and others: Do what you want to do next and don't think too far ahead. If you find something that's challenging and interesting, do it now, and make the pecuniary reward a secondary consideration. I don't think students should foreclose private practice-you can get a lot of interesting assignments. I don't think you should foreclose on making money. But don't let it be the dominant consideration.

Estrich What do you look for in a law clerk?
Stevens Someone like you.

Estrich I love that. Now, what's the real answer?
Stevens All clerks are different; there's no standard mold. That's one of the joys of the job-interviewing and hiring clerks. You meet wonderful people.

Estrich What's the most important piece of advice you would give to young lawyers?
Stevens Work hard, and remember the importance of making sure people know your word is good. The most important asset a lawyer has is having other people being willing to trust him or her in his representations of both the facts and the law. I think young lawyers-many lawyers, now and then-fail to appreciate how important it is to be totally honest with your clients and with your adversaries and with the court.

Estrich What's the most important piece of advice you would give to anxious new law students who may be wondering if they're going to make it in this profession?
Stevens The course work is by far the most important. Work hard. Do your best, and don't give up.

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published November 03, 2005

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 77 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.