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An Interview with Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens
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?
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
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.
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?
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
| || |
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 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
serve as the circuit justice for the 7th Circuit. How would you
characterize your relationship with the judges of that circuit?
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?
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?
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.
opinion surveys consistently indicate that the Supreme Court enjoys a
very high degree of public confidence. Why do you think that’s so?
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?
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?
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.