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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 237

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This is the future grave of John Paul Stevens.

Born in 1920 in Chicago to a wealthy family, as a boy Stevens attended the famous Babe Ruth called shot game in the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field, and he maintains he saw Ruth call the shot to the present. He went to the University of Chicago in 1941 and began graduate studies there in English thereafter. But World War II intervened. Stevens served as an intelligence officer in the Pacific and won a silver star for his work in a codebreaking team that led to the downing of a plane carrying Japanese Admiral and commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet Isoroku Yamamoto plane in 1943, a huge victory for the Americans.

Upon his return to the U.S., Stevens’ brother urged him to give up his English degree for the law. He started at the Northwestern School of Law in 1945 using the new GI Bill to pay his way, not that he couldn’t have paid for it with family money, but hey, that’s the thing about universal welfare programs. He did very, very well in law school and graduated magna cum laude in 1947. He became a clerk to Supreme Court justice Wiley Rutledge in the 1947-48 term. He spent the next 25 years rising through the Illinois legal system, becoming an expert on antitrust law and gaining a reputation for thoroughness and integrity. He became particularly prominent due to his work on the Greenberg Commission, investigating corruption in the Illinois legal system. People thought the commission was going to be a joke, covering up the issues. But Stevens went after powerful judges with great vigor, forcing the state’s chief justice to resign.

That made Stevens nationally prominent. Nixon named him to the Seventh Circuit in 1970 and then in 1975, Ford chose him to replace William O. Douglas on the Court. Stevens was a Republican. But he was not much of a partisan, he was willing to learn about other people’s perspectives, and he was a smart, well-reasoned guy. This meant he suddenly became a liberal on the Court as it moved to the right. Some of this is that his views changed. For example, he was initially opposed to affirmative action and voted against it in Bakke but then came to support it. It was the same with obscenity, with early votes showing great skepticism toward government protection of obscenity and then moving toward a more libertarian view on the matter. In his early years, he was the deciding vote in many 5-4 cases, including Wallace v. Jaffree, where he sided with the liberals to throw out Alabama’s minute of silence in public schools for silent prayer. He voted with the majority in Gregg v. Georgia to reinstate the death penalty and then spent most of the rest of the career deciding in ways that would limit his previous decision. He later stated that the only vote he regretted in his entire career was in Gregg.

By 2000, Stevens was solidly on the liberal wing, still probably technically a Republican, but very much not in his decisions. He decimated the five conservatives justices with his dissent in Bush v. Gore, not that the hacks cared. When he finally retired in 2010, he was seen as one of the most respected justices in memory, one that showed the flexibility, intelligence, and honesty of thought that would one like in all justices. He was a throwback by then, a reminder of a time when naked partisanship was less pronounced. Of course, he is still with us and his recent op-ed calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment was one that I approved of very strongly. I hope he lives as long as he wants, even if he does subscribe to weird theories about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

I am sure that many of you are more insightful about Stevens’ legal career and Court decisions and so this can be an open thread on his life and legacy.

Someday, hopefully not too soon, John Paul Stevens will be buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to cover more recent Supreme Court justices, you can donate to cover the necessary expenses here. Antonin Scalia is in Fairfax, Virginia and who does not want that post? Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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