CBA Record Sept-Oct 2019
“My Turn to Serve the Coffee”: A Tribute to Justice John Paul Stevens BY JAMES D. WASCHER
was, Justice Stevens remained a genuinely genial, unpretentious, modest man.” One former law clerk said that Stevens “didn’t view others based on position or stature.” Another remembered his “abiding decency. He was kind, well-adjusted and humane. He treated everyone around him like a human being.” One anecdote illustrates the point. Justice Stevens once attended a reception for incoming Supreme Court law clerks. Before his arrival, an older male justice had directed one of the few female clerks to serve the coffee. When Stevens entered the room, he saw what was hap- pening, approached the young woman, and said, “Thank you for taking your turn with the coffee. I think it’s my turn now.” And then he served the coffee. Lincoln’s eloquence was most often expressed in the spoken word: the Lincoln- Douglas Debates in 1858, the Gettysburg Address, his Second Inaugural Address. Stevens, too, had a way with words. Justice Ginsberg observed that, during Supreme Court oral arguments, “Justice Stevens did not speak often, but whenever he did speak, his wise, witty, admirably concise words drew everyone’s attention.” More commonly, though, Justice Stevens dem- onstrated his command of language in the astonishing number of Supreme Court opinions, concurrences and dissents that he authored during his nearly 35 years as a justice. Northwestern University Law Professor Martin A. Redish observed that Stevens wrote “with wit, intelligence and the compelling force of logic.” Despite his lofty standing, Justice Ste- vens never lost his sense of humor. He once said that his law clerks’ job was “to prevent me from looking like an idiot.” After his retirement from the Supreme Court in 2010 at age 90, Stevens did not serve on appeals court panels, as his former col- leagues Sandra Day O’Connor and David H. Souter did. He explained that, “I kind of like not having to read a lot of briefs and get reversed by my former colleagues.” Although he typically presented as mild-mannered, Justice Stevens was made of stern stuff. Professor Redish noted that
and distinctively singular intellect.” Retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recalled that, “He was brilliant at interpreting the law in a way to reach what he considered to be the fair result.” But Stevens’ genius went beyond his legal acumen. Former New YorkTimes Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse described him as a “field marshal . . . a strategic thinker whose genial personality and impressive analytic power could forge a path [to a favorable result] that might have been blocked by the sheer arithmetic of a majority that was well to his right.” Justice Stevens’ powerful intellect could never obscure his humility, sensitivity and grace. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg recalled in her eulogy of her former colleague that, “Quick and incisive as his mind
Justice John Paul Stevens was one of the greatest public servants from Illinois since Abraham Lincoln. Like Lincoln, he was brilliant but humble, eloquent but with a sense of humor, strong-willed but open- minded. They both modeled courage and integrity, and both were patriots who served our country in war and in peace, and shared an unshakable faith in govern- ment “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Regrettably, these qualities are in increasingly short supply in public life today. Justice Stevens’ colleagues – from the center, right, and left – all recognized his formidable intellect. Justice Stephen G. Breyer put it simply: “He was blessed with a brilliant mind.” Justice Samuel A. Alito praised Stevens’ “penetrating, pragmatic,
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CBA RECORD 29
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