Justice John Paul Stevens, the Memoir and the Man

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The retired justice's new book mirrors his work on the High Court for 35 years-- steady, courteous and humble

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John Paul Stevens' fine new book, Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir, will likely not make The New York Times' bestseller list for many of the same reasons that the recently retired justice likely won't make the list of all-time great Supreme Court jurists. There is little flashy or bold about either the text or the man; both instead are steady, courteous and humble. The book is a 248-page bow-tie; like its dignified author, and his famous sartorial flourish, an unpretentious but important addition to American history.   

It's a pity that general nonfiction readers aren't rushing out to buy Five Chiefs because, at its core, the book is not just another memoir from yet another judge. It marks instead the end of an era on the Supreme Court and in the broader swath of American law and politics. Here are the careful words of the last of the Mohicans, the initial post-Court impressions of the last moderate Republican of the so-called "Greatest Generation" to wield power in Washington, a genteel man whose court (and country) moved far to the right during his last two decades of public service.

Five Chiefs is a practical book, a pragmatic one, much like its author and the hundreds of other federal judges of his generation, who came to the courts, with war experience, from private practice. Justice Stevens has his share of critics-- you don't serve on the High Court for 35 years without breaking some eggs-- but no one will fairly portray him as an ideologue or polemist either in his temperamant or his jurisprudence. He is the last living justice to be born in the 1920s (1920, to be exact) and it shows in the tone and tenor of this book. Remember the good old days when more of our public officials were like this? 

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Since his retirement in June 2010, Justice Stevens often has passionately voiced his views on contentious legal and political issues. His piece on the teetering constitutional underpinnings of the death penalty, published last fall in The New York Review of Books, was a profoundly important and timely bit of work. It is clear, wonderfully clear, that he has chosen the path taken by his former colleague, Sandra Day O'Connor, who has been a forceful advocate for judicial independence and civics scholarship. It is a good thing, a vital thing, that our retired justices want to stay active in the public life of the country.

In Five Chiefs, however, Stevens' focused eye gives way to a hundred or so smaller points, some densely legal, some historical, some even funny. When the outside line would ring inside the Court's conference room during sessions-- obviously a wrong number-- Justice Byron White would invariably answer "Joe's bar." Funny guy, the Whizzer, except for Bowers v. Hardwick. And did you know each justice still has a metal spittoon near her/his chair in court? (Memo to administrators: put those suckers up on E-bay and use the proceeds to give trial judges a raise.)

Although Justice Stevens takes a few pot shots here and there-- at Justice Thomas, at the late Chief Justices William Rehnquist and Earl Warren-- the book is free of any arguments directed toward the reader or against a particular person. Stevens is happy to tell you what he thinks of some of the most important and interesting (to him, anyway) cases that came across his desk over the years. And he's quite willing to tell you which justices he thinks got the law wrong. But he's not interested, at least not in this book, in trying to convince you that he's right. Hopefully, that will come in the next book. Or the one after that.

Calling it "inside baseball at its best," the legal scholar Geoffrey Stone has written a good review of the book here. It is worth reading for the details of the "shots" I reference above. There is what journalists call "inside baseball" in the book-- details about the Court's history and practices that Court junkies will savour and that general readers will likely find charming. As of 2010, evidently, the place is still run like the prestigious law firms of our youth, an anachronism almost as jarring (and as endearing) as a judge who still calls the copier a "Xerox machine."

But there is more than just "inside baseball" here. People all the time talk about wanting to understand how a good judge thinks. The Senate Judiciary Committee even held a hearing on the topic last week. If you want to know how a judge thinks just read Five Chiefs. You get the sense that the author has restrained himself in the expression of his views. You never feel like any word, sentence or argument has been rashly posed. And even if you, the reasonable person, end up disagreeing with the text's conclusions you appreciate and respect the effort at the logic behind them.

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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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