Friday, June 12, 2015

John Paul Stevens bridges the past, future


    Tuesday morning was quiet, which is bad for a newspaper. My column for the next day was already done, and I was prowling around for something to do. One of our crack editors, John O'Neill, had pity on me, and suggested I might like to go to Harold Washington Library, where former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was giving a talk. He didn't have to ask twice. Hearing him speak perked me up considerably, and I hope it perks you up too.


     Charles Lindbergh gave John Paul Stevens a bird.
     It was the summer of 1927, a few months after Lindbergh became the most famous man in the world by flying from New York to Paris. He was checking out of his Chicago hotel room, and had more presents than he knew what to do with. So he gave the boy in knickers a caged pigeon.
     “I named it ‘Lindy,’” Stevens told a packed house at the Harold Washington Library Tuesday, during an hour-long conversation hosted by the Chicago Bar Association that quick-stepped through his very long and most extraordinary life, beginning as a privileged child of Jazz Age Chicago — his father built the Stevens Hotel, long since known as the Conrad Hilton, now the Hilton Chicago — hitting its stride in mid-life as the third-longest serving justice on the United States Supreme Court, and, for the past five years, enjoying a vigorous retirement.
     Steven is 95 years old. He still plays tennis and swims in the ocean.
     Here was a man who met Amelia Earhart. Who is certain that Babe Ruth really did point into the stands at Wrigley Field during the 1932 World Series, predicting where he’d hit his homer, the famous “Called Shot,” because Stevens, then 12, was there and saw him do it.
     It was about a half hour into the program, a conversation with Judge Ann Claire Williams, of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, when he was talking about being a Navy cryptographer in World War II, that I began to worry we’d never get to the Supreme Court part of his life, the way that two-thirds of the way through “Moby-Dick,” readers can start to wonder if the White Whale is ever showing up.
     But by the late 1940s, while a top student at Northwestern University Law School, he’s at the Supreme Court, clerking for Justice Wiley Rutledge, an FDR liberal nominee. Stevens was a Chicago lawyer in the 50′s and 60′s — teaching himself to fly and buying a plane in 1967 so he could more easily visit clients. In 1970, a former classmate from his undergraduate days at the University of Chicago, Sen. Chuck Percy — “The Wonder Boy of Illinois,” president of Bell & Howell at 25 — tapped him to be a judge on the 7th Circuit, and five years later Gerald Ford elevated him to the Supreme Court.
     Over the next 35 years, Stevens rendered more than 1,400 opinions in a career that defies summation, at least here. He was liberal and, as such, his beliefs could actually mature and change. Williams highlighted the evolution of Stevens’ thought regarding death penalty, from finding it constitutional in Gregg V. Georgia in 1976, to deeming it “cruel and unusual” — and thus banned by the Constitution — for people with mental handicaps in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, to finding it morally wrong altogether in Baze v. Rees in 2008.
     “The penalty really does not fit in our society anymore,’ Stevens said.
     His advice to young lawyers ranged from the value of studying poetry — which he found “extremely valuable” on the bench because “it helped me in my work as a judge” — to the best way to counteract a bad day: “drink at lunch” (advice he couldn’t have taken too often, or he wouldn’t have made it to 95).
     Riding the Divvy back to the paper, I tried to synthesize Stevens’ life. Despite the siren call of nostalgia — it’s more pleasant to bask in the glorious past than than figure out the confusing present — Stevens didn’t dwell too much in yesteryear. True, his first book, ”Five Chiefs,” was about the five chief justices he worked under. But unlike many men younger than himself, Stevens throws himself at the future, still, and his second book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” urges exactly that. Some of his suggestions are sadly impossible under the current state of political and moral cowardice — he thinks the 2nd amendment should apply only to Americans serving in militias — but some might actually happen, such as a constraint on gerrymandering, the slicing up of electoral districts for political manipulation, a practice perfected in Chicago and one that both parties see is corroding what’s left of our democracy.
     “I hope I’m that sharp when I’m 95,” I said to someone as I related Stevens talk, without too much conviction. Then, recognizing that I’ll be long relegated to a bronze urn in the back of a linen closet by 95, I decided to hope for something perhaps a little more realistic. “I wish I were that sharp now.

33 comments:

  1. What a fascinating background and what an intelligent man -- a life well lived, and still so active at 95 (good for him). With all the scandals and shameful behavior in the headlines these days, it's refreshing to read something positive about a man we can respect. Thanks to your editor for suggesting you hear him speak, and thanks to you for writing about it.

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  2. The judge is amazing.

    But one would think in this high tech era, you can work from home most days and save yourself the trip downtown.

    Hope it's not a long walk when you get off the train, especially in bad weather. Parking is so high downtown, so the convenience of a car is lost.

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  3. If one doesn't feel well or in a hurry, it would seem hard to have to wait for busses, els trains, just to get to a parked car in a station.

    Of course there's cabs but that can add up. Some can afford that. Uber is on option in city.

    But ah, the convenience of going from driveway A to parking lot B in the burbs. Of course some have to work downtown. Others avoid it if can.

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  4. He has certainly seen so many historical markers, Judge Stevens.

    Well written.

    Ah, you and that divvy. Hope no one ever runs into you in that traffic mess. It's not that safe.

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  5. And doesn't Rauner now want to play with the district bounderies too as part of the deal he wants to push through? There's only one bunch he serves. The wealthy. He has no empathy for those who need state help for good causes.

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  6. So Justice Stevens would like to rewrite the Bill of Rights? Let's invoke International Law, to strengthen our rights. Here is my suggestion for re-wording the Second Amendment:

    Article 13, Paragraph 6, of The Geneva Convention of 1949, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

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  7. Bernie, that's not realistic. The 2nd amendment wasn't meant for just anyone to have guns.

    Look at the problems guns all over has caused. The crime rate is lower in even free nations of Europe without so many having guns or guns so easy to buy.

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    1. Well, it (the 2nd amendment) kind of was - remember the role of militias back then was the be available as our armed forces so though the purpose of the unfettered right was different, the unfettered right remained. The poor performance of militias led to their replacement over the years by a regular army (General Winfield Scott - an underrated figure in American History, played a key role in this). But nobody amended the Constitution accordingly. The problem with the debate about the Bill of Rights is it leads to a lot of "only in opposition" argument (not saying that's you Anon 7:59). A lot of people who want a robust 1st and 4th amendment take a narrow reading of the 2nd and vice versa.

      Re: gun violence - whether you love or hate Michael Moore, "Bowling for Columbine" is remarkable for its subtle analysis of why there is so much gun violence in America. If I were king I'd have stricter gun control laws, but I don't think they're critical and they definitely aren't worth the horrible -political- price progressives have paid at the ballot box and elsewhere. President Obama arguably squandered what little "second term political capital" he had by focusing on gun control rather than something he might have actually passed (universal pre-school), just like George W. Bush dumbly chose privitizing social security.

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    2. Anon at 7:59 AM
      Your right it's not realistic, but I can dream. Neil's right when he implies, these suggestions are impossible to implement under the current political state. But both sides of the Second Amendment argument, accuse their opponents of political and moral cowardice.

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    3. ANA, you also would make a fine History or Poli Sci. teacher.

      Unfort. the 2nd amendment can be interpreted so widely. Yes, I know the original intentions.

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    4. meant have caused, or having guns all over

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    5. Absolutely - definitely the subject is beyond the scope of two paragraphs (or articles. or books!)

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  8. That's the Repubs scary tactics. Must have guns in house or you'll be taken over for certain.

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  9. As I recall, his "evolution" regarding the death penalty was not just on moral grounds, but because its imposition is such a crap shoot, not because a flawed criminal justice system might permit the judicial murder of innocents, but because the normal and permissible working of the system produces such unequal results. It is certainly possible that some might be wrongfully convicted and executed, but a much larger number of killers escape the needle, a number that includes mob hit men who make deals with prosecutors, women, even mothers who kill their children, middle class criminals, mostly white, who can afford good representation at trial, the list goes on.

    Tom Evans

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    1. well said, Tom

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    2. At Harold Washington, he focused on the cruelty of it -- killing someone is by definition cruel, and the Constitution bans "cruel and unusual" punishments.

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    3. I like Justice Stevens a lot, and I oppose the death penalty. But, though the death penalty may well be cruel, it has always been so. It seems pretty clear to me that the framers of the Constitution were familiar with the death penalty, and considered it neither unreasonably cruel nor unusual at that time.

      Re: Second Amendment. From Stevens' Heller dissent: "The view of the Amendment we took in Miller—that it protects the right to keep and bear arms for certain military purposes, but that it does not curtail the Legislature’s power to regulate the nonmilitary use and ownership of weapons—is both the most natural reading of the Amendment’s text and the interpretation most faithful to the history of its adoption.

      Since our decision in Miller, hundreds of judges have relied on the view of the Amendment we endorsed there;2 we ourselves affirmed it in 1980. See Lewis v. United States, 445 U. S. 55 , n. 8 (1980).3 No new evidence has surfaced since 1980 supporting the view that the Amendment was intended to curtail the power of Congress to regulate civilian use or misuse of weapons. Indeed, a review of the drafting history of the Amendment demonstrates that its Framers rejected proposals that would have broadened its coverage to include such uses." Hear! Hear!

      I just saw an article in the Washington Post the other day about the idea that many African-Americans are wondering, given that Obama's presidency hasn't been all they'd hoped for, whether it's even worth bothering with Hillary, should she be the nominee. Scary. The fact that so many interpretations of what actually IS the "law of the land" hinge on politically-motivated 5-4 Supreme Court decisions -- that the precedents referred to above were ignored in the Heller decision, e.g. -- is why one should NEVER just sit a presidential election out, nor vote for some protest candidate, especially in the general election. IMHO and harrumph, again!

      Regardless, enjoyed the column, NS, and glad you got to attend that event.

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    4. I agree with you J that the cruelty argument is a difficult one to make re the death penalty because it always evokes the "eye for an eye" comment: what about the cruelty inflicted by the criminal on his victim (s)? And is a quick death really crueler than a lifetime in a little cell? For those reasons it seems sounder to argue against the death penalty on practical grounds: it just can't be imposed fairly; trying to make it fair by resorting to extensive appeals is costly and benefits only lawyers; easier to get a conviction if death is not involved: etc.

      Re gun control, Justice Scalia's opinion in Heller actually concedes a governmental right to regulation, although you would never know it from NRA propaganda.

      Interesting article in the WAPO today about why British cops are almost never involved in fatal incidents. Better training and the absence of guns. On that subject I tell British friends that it's too late for us, but they should never fall for the lie that a heavily armed citizenry will make them safer.

      Tom Evans

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    5. Jak/Tom - The thing is that there's a problem with the old jurisprudence, at least when you get to the point your not "regulating" but banning. I'm not trying to say Stevens and/or you are flat-out wrong, just that there were liberal jurists who were "intellectually dragged" to it. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/06/us/06firearms.html?_r=0

      Though you mention Heller and that case kind of undercuts me because some of the D.C. law sure seem like merely regulation/not banning and yet the Court overturned those as well.

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  10. It must be the bow tie. Keeps your mind sharp. I've tried to wear one, but it takes me 15, 20 minutes to get it halfway right. By then, I'm as mentally gassed as LeBron James after 4 grueling playoff games.

    John

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    1. yes, James had a bad night recently

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    2. I have bad nights most mornings when my jumper is way off and my dunks are clanking off the rim of my coffee cup.

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    3. ??????????? say what?

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    4. Tate,

      I'm surprised to read that you even WEAR a jumper, let alone button it wrong, but the donuts clanking off the rim of your coffee cup is a delightful reference! ; )

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    5. ah, jak you are older than I thought

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  11. Stevens' decisions could be a little inconsistent at times (and not just because of "evolving views") but that pales in comparison to the entirety of his jurisprudence and how he balanced fidelity to the rule of law with seeing the human beings behind the legal arguments. And though he sided with the liberal wing of the Court for most of his later years, he was no ideologue. I'm curious if he took the Bush v. Gore decision as hard as David Souter?

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  12. You must be an attorney, ANA. Perhaps a corporate one.

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    1. Too bad I can't cook people my coffee crusted steak in vanilla bean sauce for y'all - people would think I'm a chef. Perhaps a corporate one!

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  13. Now I'm going to have to see if the library has Stevens' books available (perhaps on audio?). You have piqued my curiosity!

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  14. y'all? were you born in the south

    lol, corp. chef, you are asking for a spanking

    you are a man of mystery, like the shadow or whistler

    and incased you missed my comment the other day on blog, shame on you for not saying happy bday to Mr. S. that day

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    1. Given several of Mr. S's recent comments about moi (which I thought crossed a line), I didn't think such a message would have been well-received or was appropriate and that it would be better for me to just stay off the main board. But there are exceedingly few people I "know" (for lack of a better word) that I want to have an unhappy day (or even blah day) and NS is not one of those. (The commenter who brought my mother into this is a more ambiguous case...).

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    2. I must have missed that one. Didn't see anyone mentioning your mom.

      I see your point. Then Bitter Scribe has no excuse not to say happy bday. Not doing a tally, just looking at the regulars that day.

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  15. Who wants to live to 95 if we aren't as mentally fit as the Judge is, and only propped up by meds and constant doc/hosp visits while dragging on the lives of adult children? It's quality not quantity.

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