John Paul Stevens (born 1920), appointed to the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon in 1975, became a member of the "liberal" voting group on the Court which included Justices William J. Brennan and Thurgood Marshall.
Illinois native John Paul Stevens was a Phi Beta Kappa first-in-his-class University of Chicago magna cum laude graduate and law review graduate of Northwestern University. He clerked for Supreme Court Associate Justice Wiley B. Rutledge 1947-1948. He was serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit when President Ford selected him in 1975 as his sole appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was speedily confirmed 98 to 0.
On the Court, Justice Stevens—its junior justice for almost six years until Justice Sandra Day O'Connor replaced Justice Stewart in late 1981—confounded prognosticators who thought they knew him as well as those who did not. Widely considered a "sure swing vote" in the Court's center, then generally composed of Justices White and Stewart, often joined by Justice Powell and occasionally by Justice Blackmun, he soon proved to be found far more frequently with the "liberal bloc" of Justices Brennan and Marshall, and increasingly so with the passing of time.
Stevens was not as doctrinaire as the other two liberals in all facets of civil rights and liberties, and he resolutely parted company with them on such high visibility issues as "reverse discrimination." Nevertheless his "pro rights" or "pro individual" score was consistently high, exceeded only by his two libertarian brethren and by Justice Blackmun in racial discrimination litigation. The women's rights group which opposed his nomination because of his alleged "blatant insensitivity" to sex discrimination quickly began to hail him as both sensitive and free of preconceived notions. Voting rights, free speech, free exercise of religion, separation of church and state, civil rights for African-Americans, children, and prisoners, and not excluding the criminal justice sector—the Stevens' record in all of these areas drew praise from liberal constituencies.
A "gadfly to the brethren," a personal loner, a legal maverick, he consistently challenged his colleagues. Always well-prepared and soft-spoken in his frequent colloquies with counsel in oral argument, he probed like a veritable explorer and was replete with novel legal theories. The latter was particularly notable in cases involving constitutional interpretation, where his jurisprudence permitted him a great deal more latitude than in statutory construction problems. A student of history, and beholden to the tenets of stare decisis he nonetheless recognized the importance of the moving finger of time—or, as Justice Oliver W. Holmes expressed it, he "felt necessities of the time." Yet, as he demonstrated so fervently in such stream-of-consciousness cases as Bakke, he did not ignore legislative language or clear legislative intent in favor of judicial fiat.
Although respectful and courteous, Stevens found it difficult to subsume his own ideas and interpretations to others in order to forge a numerically united front. This was in part because he wrote more dissenting and concurring opinions than any of his colleagues while lamenting the plethora of opinions handed down by the Court and the cascading number of cases accepted for review! He disagreed with the majority in fully 50 of 91 divided opinions in the 1983-1984 term. To dissent, of course, is one thing; but to engage in a flood of concurring opinions is quite another—for they all-too-often muddied the constitutional law waters and laid themselves open to the charge that they were ego trips.
Stevens found it extremely difficult to join a majority or dissenting opinion without some comment. Thus, in the delicate and difficult July 1983 holding in Barefoot v. Estelle, in which a badly divided Court upheld the expedited handling of a death row case, Stevens dissented from Justice White's controlling opinion on the procedural issue; but he then concurred in the majority's sanction of the prosecution's use of psychiatric testimony—thereby casting the Court's vote into a 5:3 equation. And early in 1984 he deemed it necessary not only to be the sole dissenter in an "original jurisdiction" jurisdictional case dispute, but he also filed a partial concurrence. That he was not the only justice to engage in that type of perfectionism does not gainsay the unfortunate effect it had upon the judicial process, let alone the public's comprehension.
In 1992, Stevens wrote the opinion for Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., in which the Court, by a 7-2 vote, ruled that cigarette manufacturers could be sued under state products liability laws, particularly those grounded in charges of fraud or misrepresentation about the dangers of cigarette smoking. A rash of lawsuits broke out country-wide. In March, 1997, the Liggett Group announced a sweeping settlement in 22 states that were suing the tobacco industry to recover Medicaid costs. This followed a public admission by Liggett officials that tobacco is addictive and causes cancer and heart disease.
If Stevens was not a jurisprudential or tactical on-bench leader, he was nonetheless an unceasing stimulator of reflection, of innovation, of disciplined literateness (witness his majority opinion for the 5:4 Court in the 1984 "Home Video Taping" case), and of cerebral combat in constitutional law logic and theory. His gift for elegant, pungent expression will grace the Court's annals.
The literature on Justice Stevens was sparse. A commendable early appraisal was Leonard Orland's "John Paul Stevens" in Leon Friedman (editor), The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789-1978 (1980). Justice Stevens' opinions— several of which were mentioned in this article—represented a good measure of his jurisprudence. In general, see Henry J. Abraham, Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court (1985). □