CBA Record Sept-Oct 2019
A Clerk’s-Eye View of Justice John Paul Stevens BY MICHELE ODORIZZI
All turned out well: we finished our work on time and our daughter Sarah arrived a few days after the Term ended. In his recently published memoir, T he Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years, the Justice very kindly said that “over the years we have frequently recalled that event as the most important accomplishment of the October 1979 term”—a sentiment that I heartily endorse. Family was important to Justice Stevens. At the funeral, Justice Stevens’ granddaugh- ter Hannah Mullen described him as “the greatest grandpa in the world,” who was “an avid patron of elementary school choir concerts,” who swam and built sand castles with his grandchildren, and who loved to play board games with them. She recalled that “Grandpa took our Scrabble rivalry so seriously he once delayed a family dinner because he demanded a rematch.” When Hannah started law school, he sent her articles she could read so they could discuss them over his morning coffee—and he would always listen to what she had to say. As Hannah said, “he was the most brilliant person I ever met, and yet he could make the people around him feel brighter, rather than dimmer, in his presence.” That is another reason why Justice Stevens’ clerks loved him. While he didn’t really need us to decide how to vote, he nevertheless made us feel as though we were a crucial part of the decision-making pro- cess. Unlike other justices, Justice Stevens did not ask us to prepare bench memos on argued cases. He read the briefs himself and then plunked down on a leather chair in the clerks’ office to discuss his and our impressions. The conversations were lively; he was always interested in what we had to say. He also wrote the first drafts of his opinions, concurrences and dissents. He did so for a reason—putting in the hard work of explaining why he had reached a particular result enabled Justice Stevens to make sure that he had arrived at the right result. The law clerks helped revise those first drafts in a collaborative process where no egos were involved: the only goal was to produce the best possible opinion.
who recounted that he was shocked to dis- cover, after a fairly lengthy acquaintance, that the “John Stevens” he enjoyed playing bridge with was a sitting member of the U.S. Supreme Court. There was the oral advocate rendered speechless when scolded for calling a Justice “Judge,” who Justice Stevens rescued with a gentle “Don’t worry, the Constitution makes the same mistake.” Like Justice Stevens’ other clerks, I have my own stories to illustrate his kindness. In November 1979, I discovered that what I had thought was stomach flu was actually morning sickness and that I was expecting our first child around the first of July, when the Supreme Court’s Term would end. I went into Justice Stevens’ office with more than a little bit of trepidation to tell him the news—unlike the other justices, he had two rather than three clerks, and I had no idea whether I would be able to carry my share of the workload. But when I told him, he responded by saying “that’s marvel- ous!” followed by a big smile and assurances that, if I needed more time to rest, he and my co-clerk (Peter Isakoff) could handle it.
In May 2019, over Mother’s Day week- end, nearly 100 of Justice Stevens’ former clerks traveled to the Justice’s home in Ft. Lauderdale, FL for a clerks’ reunion. Two months later, most of the clerks traveled to Washington, D.C. for Justice Stevens’ funeral following his death at age 99 on July 17. The reason why so many of us made those journeys is simple: as a former clerk who spoke at Justice Stevens’ funeral put it, “He loved us. We loved him.” All of us admired Justice Stevens’ encyclopedic knowledge of the law, his ability to write clear and cogent opinions, and his determination to take principled stands regardless of whether any other Justice agreed with him. But we loved him because of who he was as a person. He was unfailingly kind, generous, and humble. He was also witty, self-confident, and an optimist who never lost faith in the Supreme Court as an institution, even as he vehemently disagreed with some of its most consequential decisions. Anecdotes that illustrate these qualities abound. There was the neighbor in Florida
At the 2016 Stevens Award Luncheon CBA Past President Daniel Kotin and Chicago Cubs Chief Legal Officer and CBA Board Member Michael Lufrano presented Justice Stevens with a flag that few over Wrigley Field during the 1932 season.
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CBA RECORD 31
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