As John Paul Stevens announced Friday his intention to retire from the Supreme Court at the end of the current term, many profiles in the press increasingly highlight his reputation as a liberal justice.
“The leader of the court’s liberal wing,” is how a front-page story in the New York Times (April 4th) characterized Stevens—the second-oldest justice and, after 35 years, the fourth-longest serving justice in history. But the same profiles inevitably write of the Chicagoan and former U.S. Court of Appeals judge as a “moderate” or even “conservative” jurist who gradually evolved in the liberal iconoclast he is today (“grew” is the term in vogue for this evolution on the left).
Recalling how then-President Gerald Ford appointed him in 1975, the Times profile noted that Stevens was in those days was considered a somewhat idiosyncratic moderate. These days he is lionized by the left.
While some did indeed regard him as “moderate” or even “conservative,” at least one source pegged Stevens as a liberal from the beginning: us guys.
In the HUMAN EVENTS’ cover story in the December 13, 1975 issue, shortly after Stevens was named to succeed retiring Justice William O. Douglas, we noted that while Stevens “has been given a cautious okay by many conservatives on the Hill and elsewhere,” others feared “he may turn out to be far more liberal than many of his better-known opinions on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would suggest.”
The prime source of worry to conservatives regarding Stevens was the people behind him. Then-Sen. Charles Percy (R.-Ill.), a noted liberal GOPer, recommended his old friend from their days as undergraduates at the University of Chicago for the Circuit Court in 1970.
Ford’s attorney general, Edward Levi, was also a friend of Stevens from Chicago and was in all likelihood pivotal to his being nominated instead of the other much-discussed candidate, strong conservative and U.S. Appellate Judge Arlin Adams of Philadelphia. (Levi, of course, was a particular bête noire to conservatives, having abolished the Department of Justice’s Internal Security Division, scrapped the attorney general’s list of subversive suspects and oversaw complicated and restrictive “guidelines” that hampered the FBI’s surveillance of subversives).
“Equally upsetting to many [about Stevens],” we wrote in 1975, “is that Charles Morgan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that the ACLU’s Chicago offices do not seem at all unhappy with the appointment.”
Others on the left who weighed in for Stevens’ appointment and were cited by HUMAN EVENTS as a reason for worry in 1975 were New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis (“a doctrinaire liberal who wrote a surprisingly sympathetic column regarding Stevens”) and Warren Christopher, chairman of the American Bar Association’s screening committee, which gave Stevens its highest ratings. (Christopher, who had been deputy to far-left Attorney General Ramsey Clark from 1967-68, later served as Bill Clinton’s secretary of State).
Our fears about Stevens were borne out. Once a strong critic of affirmative action, Stevens changed his position and upheld the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan Law School in the Grutter v. Bollinger case (2003). Formerly skeptical of constitutional protection of obscenity, he has since voted to strike down federal law regulating on-line obscene comment (ACLU v. Ashcroft, ’02).
He voted to strike down an Alabama law mandating a moment of silence in public schools for prayer or meditation (Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985) and dissented from a decision upholding the Ten Commandments displayed on the Texas Capitol grounds (Van Orden v. Perry, 2005). He went from support of the death penalty to opposition, echoing Justice Byron White’s claim that “extinction of life” would violate the 8th Amendment and wrote a blistering dissent in the Bush v. Gore case (2000), accusing the court’s majority that voted to stop the Florida of “the most cynical appraisal of the work of judges throughout the land.”
Most recently, Stevens dissented in the Citizens United ruling (2010) which struck down many of the limits on campaign donations to races for federal offices and wrote the majority opinion in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), which struck down guidelines for interrogation of detainees in the war on terror.
“The ‘soft’ evidence, comments by such liberals as Christopher and Lewis,” we concluded about John Paul Stevens thirty-five years ago, “hints he may be more liberal than is apparent on the surface.”
We were right.