Read: A conversation with John Paul Stevens
Above all, Stevens defined the rule of law as the obligation of the government to behave impartially instead of favoring one group over another for partisan or sectarian reasons. I asked him about the theme of anti-corruption in his background and opinions. “You don’t like people fired for patronage reasons, and you’re against political partisan gerrymandering. Tell me why you think that’s important,” I said. Stevens laughed. “Because it is. You’re right that in the gerrymandering business, it seems to me that one of the overriding principles in running the country is the government ought to be neutral. It has a very strong obligation to be impartial and not to use the power to advance political agendas or personal agendas. That’s just one of the most basic principles that cuts through all sorts of law.”
In our interview and in his book, Stevens traced his concern about government neutrality to the unjust prosecution of his father, Ernest J. Stevens, who in 1927 built the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, now the Chicago Hilton, for the then-staggering amount of $30 million. The Stevens was billed as the “largest and finest hotel in the world.”
Stevens experienced a gilded youth: At the age of 7, at the opening banquet for the hotel, he met the famous aviator Amelia Earhart, who gave him a dove and remarked that he was up late on a school night. Stevens and his young brothers appeared as nude models for the commemorative sculptures and ashtrays created for the opening of the hotel, posing next to large fish.
Still, the hotel went bankrupt in the Great Depression, and Stevens’s father, grandfather, and uncle were indicted for diverting money to make interest payments on hotel bonds from the Illinois Life Insurance Company, which was controlled by Stevens’s grandfather. In the face of the indictment, his grandfather suffered a stroke and his uncle committed suicide, leaving Stevens’s father the only defendant to stand trial. His father was initially convicted of embezzling $1.3 million, only to have his conviction overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court.
“A totally unjust conviction, I can assure you,” Stevens told me, and the experience of having rogue Chicago policemen break into his home and terrorize his family looking for supposedly hidden funds convinced Stevens of the dangers of governmental corruption. In his book, he writes, “In recent years, my firsthand knowledge of the criminal justice system’s fallibility has reinforced my conviction that the death penalty should be abolished.”
Read: Now he tells us: John Paul Stevens wants to abolish the death penalty
Stevens’s belief that the government has a duty to govern impartially united his apparently disparate votes to regulate racial gerrymandering and partisan gerrymandering, which he viewed as two sides of the same coin. As an appellate judge, he objected to the conclusion that the Roberts Court, by a 5–4 vote, embraced in June: that political gerrymandering is “non-justiciable”—that is, not reviewable by federal courts. As Stevens writes in his book: “I disagreed with the view that a stricter standard should be applied to discrimination against racial groups than to discrimination against other identifiable groups of voters … ‘Yet that is the logical consequence of an inflexible rule that “political” gerrymandering is not justiciable.’”