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April 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


An Interview with Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens

Q: In March 2007, your Supreme Court tenure surpassed that of Justice Byron White, and you are now the tenth longest serving justice in court history. Had you been aware of that milestone?

A:  No. I knew it was coming sooner or later, but it’s not something I attach any special importance to. I know there are a lot of people out there who think I’ve been here five or 10 years too long. But the reason I stay on is that I enjoy the job. It’s a rare privilege to have this job; to have work this interesting and challenging at this stage in your life. But I’m not trying to set any records.

Q: You spent five years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit before joining the Supreme Court. How do you compare the dynamic of hearing and deciding cases as one of nine compared to doing so as one of three?

A:  It's obviously easier with just three. There’s less diversity of opinion to deal with, and during the process you only have to persuade two others, rather than eight others, to agree with you. The process, however, is much the same. It is one of discussion and trying to work out what you all want to do. There’s a greater difference in the oral argument than in the deliberation part of the process. Having three judges is like having a smaller committee. It’s more spontaneous.

Q: Chief Justice Rehnquist was known for meticulously assuring, during the discussion of cases to be decided, that each justice speak once before anyone spoke twice. Is that rule still honored?

A: Essentially it is. But it is not quite as strict as it was before. I think we take a little more time under Chief Justice Roberts than we did with Bill Rehnquist. But it’s essentially the same.

Q: Several court members, past and present, have discussed the period of adjusting to life at the Supreme Court. Did your time on the appellate court and your having served as a law clerk to Justice Wiley Rutledge ease or shorten your period of adjustment?

A: Frankly, I felt comfortable pretty promptly. I wasn’t a stranger here, and I did feel that my background and memories as a clerk brought a lot of practices and customs of the court back to mind. And it’s clearly true that experience on the court of appeals is a great help here because you’re confronting the same issues pretty much. It’s amazing, when arriving at this court, how many times you have bumped into an issue you dealt with before, either directly or indirectly. Also, my experience as a law clerk is the reason I didn’t join the pool (in which one clerk from each chamber prepares a shared memo on each of the thousands of petitions for writ of certiorari). I had some familiarity with cert work, and I thought I could get through the certs faster without joining the pool. And that opinion hasn’t changed.

Q: Are you the only justice who does not participate in the cert pool?

A: That's right.

Q: Have the challenges facing the federal Judiciary changed much during your tenure?

A:They seem to change every day. It’s responsive to the cases you’re working on. You think of the current controversies and challenges as always something new. That’s one of the fascnating things about the job. You’re constantly amazed to find issues that you would have thought would have been decided 20 years ago.

  Supreme Court Tenures

1. William O. Douglas, 36 years, 7 months
2. John Marshall, 34 years, 6 months
3. Stephen Field, 34 years, 6 months
4. Hugo Black, 34 years, 1 month
5. John Harlan I, 33 years, 10 months
6. William Brennan, 33 years, 9 months
7. William Rehnquist, 33 years, 9 months
8. Joseph Story, 33 years, 7 months
9. James Wayne, 32 years, 5 months
10. John Paul Stevens, since December 19, 1975


Q: Certain times throughout history, the work of the court seems to be more politicized by those outside the court. Are you able to isolate yourself from such distractions?

A:That’s a question that every federal judge thinks about over his or her career. You think you are totally isolated, and I think for the most part we are. We decide the cases on what we think the law requires, rather than the popular reaction. And it’s part of the job to write unpopular opinions. You certainly don’t decide the cases on the basis of popular vote.

Q: You serve as the circuit justice for the 7th Circuit. How would you characterize your relationship with the judges of that circuit?

A: I’ve served as its circuit justice since I joined this court. I speak to the circuit’s conference each year. I give a speech and then talk informally and off the record with the judges. I’ve always enjoyed that. It is a larger group now, since they’ve included magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges in the meetings. It used to be just circuit judges, then it expanded to the district judges, and now it’s even broader. But it’s always been a pleasant occasion.

Q: Did you, or do you, have any judicial heroes?

A: Yes. John Marshall, of course. And Brandeis, Holmes and Cardozo were the three heroes when I was in law school, and I still consider them among the greatest to have served on this court. And, of course, Justice Rutledge was and remains a hero. I served with some pretty fine justices, my contemporaries, too.

Q: Are there some colleagues with whom you have felt a special kinship?

A:  I probably was closer to Justice White than anyone else. We struck it off very well. I had known him way back during World War II, and I used to play golf with him regularly in his last few years on the court. I had a special relationship withhim. Justice (Lewis) Powell and I were quite close, in part because of the similarity of our duties during the war. I always admired Justice (Potter) Stewart. He was a wonderful judge, a very eloquent person. He could say in a paragraph or two what someone else had been trying to say in 25 pages. He was a very gifted, competent justice. I had great admiration for him.

Q:  Early in your Supreme Court tenure, you were called a moderate conservative by in the news media and academia. Today, you are called a liberal. Why do you think that change in perception has occurred?

A: There are more members of the court now who are not moderate conservatives. And of course, it depends on whether you’re talking about a political conservative or a judicial conservative. There are changes in the court that have to be taken into account.

Q: You have practiced law, taught the law, and have served as a judge. What has given you the most job satisfaction?

A: I really enjoyed all three. You know, the law is a wonderful profession. One of the reasons is that is it full of variety, full of challenges, and full of interesting problems. The judicial work has the advantage over the practice of law of not having to keep time sheets, and you don’t have to travel as much. Practice is very stimulating and rewarding, too. I enjoyed the teaching except for the blue books. I never felt comfortable in the judgments I had to make in giving grades to my students. They mean so much; grades are very important. Speaking about law students, I have a bias in choosing law clerks. I prefer those who are only a year or two out of law school, closer to their academic experience. They keep me more abreast of what’s current in the thinking of law professors, and I just like the younger perspective.

Q: Public opinion surveys consistently indicate that the Supreme Court enjoys a very high degree of public confidence. Why do you think that’s so?

A: The principal reason is that, on the whole, the court does a good job. And it is the one institution in government that gives the honest reasons for its decisions. It states its reasons in published opinions. I think the court really is a very open institution, despite the fact that our arguments are not televised and our conferences are not public.

Q: You have worked with three chief justices. How would you assess and compare their styles?

A: Chief Justice (Warren) Burger was particularly gracious in open court. He was a very good presiding officer—he looked like a chief justice ought to look and he was a very charming guy. On the other hand, he was not as efficient and disciplined in his leadership role in conference as Bill Rehnquist was. Bill was very fair. In arguments, he was perhaps a little more strict on the red light than he had to be, cutting off lawyers who hadn’t finished their answers and so forth.

I think Chief Justice Roberts combines the virtues of both his predecessors. He’s a very charming guy with a wonderful sense of humor as you’ve probably seen in open court. And he’s equally effective in conference. He’s very fair in how he handles his responsibilities in conference. I’m sure he’s going to be a real credit to the court over the years. And I know that’s not an isolated opinion.

Q: Any thoughts about how you’d like your judicial legacy to be perceived by future generations?

A: I don’t know quite how to answer that. I just hope people will make their judgments based on what my written opinions say, and not on what people say they say. There’s a long record there, and an awful lot of words. I just hope they say he did the best he could.