Justice Stevens Announces RetirementApril 9, 2010 - 11:07 AM | by: Lee Ross
In a move that was widely expected, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced his intention to resign from the high court in a letter to President Obama dated Friday. Stevens resignation gives Obama his second opportunity to make a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court and sets up a near certain Senate confirmation battle this summer.
In his letter to the president, Stevens concluded that “it would be in the best interests of the Court to have my successor appointed and confirmed” before the next high court term starts in October. He will remain on the bench through the end of the current term which is likely end in late June.
Stevens has been on the bench longer than any other current member of the Supreme Court and was a federal appellate judge in Chicago in 1975 when President Gerald Ford picked him for the high court.
Chief Justice John Roberts issued a statement Friday saying Stevens “has enriched the lives of everyone at the Court through his intellect, independence, and warm grace. “
Stevens impact in the bench was immediate as his vote helped forge a narrow majority to reinstate the death penalty. But by 2008, Stevens concluded the way capital punishment was carried out by states was pointless and “patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment.”
It was “a conclusion that the stable ground that he thought he found early on wasn’t proving as stable as he would have liked,” Stewart Baker, a former Stevens law clerk told Fox News.
Stevens was born in 1920 and raised in his beloved hometown of Chicago. His family ran the old Stevens Hotel on Michigan Avenue until the Great Depression knocked them out of business. In between his college studies at the University of Chicago and Northwestern Law School where he finished first in his class he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was awarded a bronze star for his work as part of the famous Codebreakers stationed in Hawaii.
In 1947, Stevens did a one year clerkship for Justice Wiley Rutledge. A man Stevens would later call a hero. It is perhaps because of this experience that Stevens would make sure he engaged his clerks in the day-to-day operations of the Court.
“That may not sound that unusual but in many of the other chambers,” observed Abner Greene, a former clerk and now law professor at Fordham University. “A lot of work was done by memo writing. The clerks would write memos to the justice. There would be set meetings every week to talk to the justice. But with Justice Stevens, it was an on-going legal discussion. Which is the best opportunity”
While Stevens has remained a prolific writer, his voice on the Court didn’t really emerge until the 1990’s when he became the longest-serving associate justice. This position–second only to the Chief Justice in influence–allowed him to craft close majorities in dozens of cases. This skill enabled Stevens to pick up the crucial fifth vote in a string of War on Terror cases from 2004-2008 challenging the Bush Administration’s handling of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.
“In all of those cases, it’s Justice Stevens who is assigning the opinion to Justice Kennedy. It’s not like Justice Kennedy walks in and picks it up,” Green observed.
Stevens is known for his intellect and even temperament and as a rabid Chicago Cubs fan who a few years ago threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Wrigley Field. And he was there in 1932 as a 12 year old boy and saw Babe Ruth hit his famous “called shot” home run in the World Series.
“He really did it. There’s no doubt about it,” Stevens said several years ago. “I saw it and I remember it. Of course, there are millions of people who claim to have been here. But I really was.”
In 2000, the Supreme Court was called upon to effectively decide that year’s presidential election. Stevens came out on the short end of that decision. “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
In recent years, Stevens maintained that his conservative principles never changed during his time on the Court. Rather it was the justices around him and perhaps the country too that became more conservative than he.