Stevens Retires: The End of "Old School" On the Court

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It has been easy to overlook United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and his contributions to the American legal scene. Indeed, he has been overlooked for much of his time on the Court -- a breathtaking 35 years -- two generations! -- from the dark days post-Watergate to the dark-days following the terror attacks upon America. He was unable to muster the votes and the doctrinal legacy of William Brennan. He was unwilling to scold and upbraid like William O. Douglas. He didn't change the country like Earl Warren. Instead, he was merely a congenially upbeat, honorable man, who refused to go along with the Court's grand, sweeping move to the right which coincided with his tenure.

He was suspicious of government claims, especially by Bush-era lawyers who came to court to argue against rights for detainees. He was suspicious of the nation's capital punishment jurisprudence, having seen its unfair and unjust results for virtually his whole tenure on  the Court (the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1972, just before he got there). He thought the votes should have been counted in Florida in November/December 2000 and that this term's infamous campaign finance case was a disaster. He was, undoubtedly, President Gerald Ford's greatest legacy -- the yin to the yang that was his pardon of Richard M. Nixon.

With his announced retirement, Justice Stevens also becomes another example, a stirring one given his recent court opinions, of how decades on the Court seems to weaken the conservative resolve of old-fashioned Rockefeller Republicans. Justice Stevens moved to the Left during his time on the Court.  And so did Justice Souter. And so did Justice Harry Blackmun, who just before he left the bench famously wrote about being unable any longer to "tinker with the machinery of death" by supporting capital punishment. Republican appointees all. And leavers of grand Democratic principles and precedents.

I'll be back later with more on the retirement and the looming confirmation battle to come.

 

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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