Advancing a Free Society

The Stevens Legacy: Mixed Verdict

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Now that Justice John Paul Stevens has stepped down, we can expect to see a long line of tributes for his many years of service on the U.S. Supreme Court. His journey began back in 1975, when the late Edward Levi, then the attorney general of the U.S., engineered his promotion to the Supreme Court to wide public approval, myself included. Stevens had acquired an excellent reputation during his service on the Seventh Circuit. And he was deservedly praised then, and now, for his courtliness, humanity and demeanor.

But what about his judicial work on the Supreme Court? That requires a more detailed answer. When appointed to the Court, Justice Stevens was widely regarded as a Republican Centrist. Since that time Justice Stevens has migrated further to the left as the Court migrated further to the right. The two ships passed each other in the night sometime during the 1980s, until Justice Stevens became the anchor and the spiritual leader of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court. To most members of the legal professoriate his move leftward against the tide was the source of inspiration and pride, and without question his reputation rose in his last decade of service. Early in his career he was typically regarded as an unpredictable maverick, known for his ranging intellect and idiosyncratic legal positions. But later on, his consistent voting record has made him the hero of the progressive movement. It was as though Justice Stevens, who came of age during the turmoil of the New Deal, became its later-day incarnation.

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