Beginning in 1920 and ending Tuesday, the life of John Paul Stevens, late associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, spanned 99 of the most consequential years in the history of the country he loved. As a participant in the great events of that dramatic time — he was a World War II Navy intelligence officer, a corruption-busting Chicago lawyer and, between 1975 and 2010, a member of the highest court in the land — Stevens brought to public affairs not only his ideals and intellect but also uncommon personal decency.
In today’s contentious political climate, the notion of “civility” has fallen out of favor, yet Stevens, with his soft voice and diamond-hard legal arguments, epitomized the best version of it. He neither disrespected those with whom he disagreed nor yielded to them on what he considered matters of principle. America would be a far better place today if more people conducted themselves as John Paul Stevens did.
And America is a better place today because of Stevens’ service on the court. He lent his vote and, in well-crafted opinions, his voice, to causes such as the abolition of capital punishment for minors and those with cognitive disabilities; gay rights; campaign finance reform; and abortion rights. He led a battle to rein in the George W. Bush administration’s excessive assertions of executive power over terrorism detainees, the high point of which was his 2006 majority opinion barring military trials for prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba without congressional authorization. Two years before that, Stevens had written: “If this Nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants even to resist an assault by the forces of tyranny,” phrases whose relevance seems to grow with each passing day.
No one is perfect: Stevens’ old-fashioned patriotism led him to support laws against burning the American flag, despite the clear threat to free speech, in a 1989 case his side fortunately lost. In 1997, he joined a unanimous court in allowing lawsuits against sitting presidents for their private conduct, calling Paula Jones’ sexual harassment suit against President Bill Clinton “highly unlikely to occupy any substantial amount of petitioner’s time.”
More often, though, it was a majority of Stevens’ colleagues who erred, in failing to follow reasoning he laid out in dissenting opinions. On no issue was this clearer than that of the Second Amendment: A 2008 dissent by Stevens was both learned and eloquent in showing that the Founding Fathers originally intended to authorize autonomous state militias, not to create a constitutional right to individual firearms ownership. Laid out in defense of a District of Columbia gun-possession law, Stevens’ opinion was important both for its substantive conclusion and, in a methodological sense, as an effective rebuttal to the “originalist” jurisprudence championed by the majority opinion’s author, Justice Antonin Scalia.
The full meaning and consequences of the court-made right to gun possession have yet to be delineated. Recent events, however, show that Stevens was right to fear the worst.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE WASHINGTON POST