Lives in the Law: Justice John Paul Stevens

May 15, 2012Duke Law News

Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens shared stories and insights from his legal career and 40 years on the bench with graduating Duke Law students and their families on May 12, in a special “Lives in the Law” interview with Dean David F. Levi.

A Chicago native, Stevens completed law school in a two-year accelerated program at Northwestern University following his World War II naval service. He recalled competing for a Supreme Court clerkship with Associate Justice Wiley Rutledge Jr. against a classmate and close friend; both were in a hurry to enter practice and preferred a one-year clerkship with Rutledge over a two-year clerkship with Chief Justice Frederick Vinson, which also was available.

“The members of the faculty who were in charge of making the decision could not decide who should get the appointment [with Rutledge], so we had a meeting in the law review office and they decided we’d use a very ancient form of deciding difficult questions,” he said. “We flipped a coin and I won.”

Rutledge had a “tremendous effect” on him, added Stevens. “He was a very, very conscientious and delightful man. He was very, very conscientious in everything he did. And he set the example I tried to follow later in writing his own first drafts [of opinions].”

Returning to Chicago after his clerkship, Stevens practiced for four years with the firm now known as Jenner & Block before co-founding Rothschild, Stevens & Barry. He particularly enjoyed the variety of the work he encountered in practice. “You’re always getting new problems, things you don’t know much about,” he said. “You meet new people. It’s really an exciting profession. And you’re involved in making things happen in the community.”
President Richard M. Nixon ’37 nominated Stevens for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 1970. Stevens credited Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) for recommending him to the president.

“Unlike the practice that had been going on for a number of years, [Percy] tried to get lawyers that he thought would be well qualified for the job,” Stevens said. “He did not search for patronage appointments or anything like that. It’s kind of a long story, but he asked me to consider going on the bench and persuaded me to take the job.” While Stevens admitted being concerned about the relatively low pay for federal judges, he said he ultimately enjoyed his move from practice to the Seventh Circuit.

“It’s a strong court and I enjoyed the work very much,” he said. “I didn’t get phone calls in the middle of the night, I didn’t have to travel as much, and I didn’t have to keep time sheets.”

President Gerald R. Ford nominated Stevens to the Supreme Court in 1975. “I have a feeling that your father had something to do with that,” Stevens quipped to Levi; the dean’s father, Edward H. Levi was, at the time, U.S. Attorney General. He described undergoing a confirmation process very different from the ones his more recently appointed colleagues experienced; his was the last to be untelevised, and senators steered clear from asking questions about his judicial philosophy even in their behind-the-scenes meetings.

“It’s my understanding that the nominees [now] basically go through individual hearings with senators on the committee and a lot of that is repeated in the hearing itself, which I think is really quite wrong,” he said.

Stevens described the high court itself as a highly collegial body and “a great place to work with grand people.” Dissents, in particular, can be “more biting than they have to be,” but don’t reflect any animosity among the justices, he said.

Famous for his own dissents, Stevens said he does not dissent “unless I feel I can come up with a theory that would help reach the opposite result.” Dissents are easier to write than majority opinions, he observed, because “you don’t have to convince your colleagues. You’re happy if people join your dissent, but you just set forth your own views and that’s it.” And the dissent tends to more clearly be the product of the author than the court opinion is, he said.

Stevens shared warm recollections of the various chief justices he has known since his days as a clerk ─ the subjects of his 2011 book, Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir ─ and of other colleagues on the Court. He agreed with Justice Byron White’s observation that “every time there is a new justice it becomes a new Court.”

“There are nine decision-makers, and every time you have a different one, it becomes a different decision-making body,” Stevens said.

As a new justice on the court headed by Chief Justice Warren Burger, Stevens recalled attending the annual white-tie Gridiron Dinner at the behest of Justice William Brennan, “a delightful person,” who also leant his new colleague a set of tails. “He was heavier around the middle than I was,” said Stevens, “so I had to make sure they didn’t fall to the ground.”

Stevens also recalled Justice Thurgood Marshall fondly. “His primary work was as a trial lawyer. He tried cases all over the South in very, very difficult circumstances,” Stevens said. He would talk about those from time to time. And he also had probably the best store of humorous jokes of anybody I’ve met. One of the most remarkable things about him was that he never told the same story twice.”

His fondest social memories, he said, were of his frequent golf games with, Justice Byron White. “Justice White was an especially wonderful man, and I think he has not been given the credit that he really should,” said Stevens. “He wrote some opinions that I thought were quite wrong, but that happens to all of us. But he was a very special guy.”

Asked by Levi how the administration of the high court changed under each chief justice, Stevens drew laughter in saying “I don’t think the chief runs the court.” Chief Justice William Rehnquist, he said, was more efficient than Burger in the assignment of cases and as a presiding officer, always holding advocates to strict time constraints during oral argument. But Burger “had a better feel for the oral argument process than Bill [Rehnquist] did,” Stevens said. “He was inclined to allow a little extra time when it was appropriate.”

Stevens called Chief Justice John Roberts “of the three, probably the best presiding officer.” Stevens noted his admiration for Roberts as a leading Supreme Court advocate prior to his nomination to the Court by President George W. Bush. “He’s a really fine lawyer. As everyone knows, a good lawyer has to be someone you can trust. I can’t remember how many arguments he made [before the Court] but he was honest with the facts, he was honest with the law, and he was very persuasive and very intelligent in answering questions ─ really an excellent lawyer.”

In the end, Stevens said, being a justice is “a wonderful job. There are wonderful people there and it’s a wonderful place to work.”