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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Justice Born for the Ages

John Paul Stevens turns 82 on Saturday and is the oldest Supreme Court member. And he's still one of the best thinkers and writers on the bench.


WASHINGTON — Arguing before the Supreme Court is not for the timid or the easily unnerved.

The justices interrupt the lawyers with ever-sharper questions. Then when an attorney tries to offer an answer, he is likely to be cut off by scornful jabs from other justices.

But nearly every contentious argument has a gentle interval. Sitting quietly in the middle of the bench is the white-haired Justice John Paul Stevens, sporting a bow tie and broad-rimmed glasses. He watches intently like an old owl, waiting until the fury of his colleagues subsides.

"Counsel, may I inquire about one aspect of your argument?" he sometimes begins, leaning forward as if in conversation.

Unfailingly courteous, Stevens never attacks the lawyers, mocks their arguments or wisecracks at their expense. He listens intently to their answers.

"Can you clarify what you mean?" he asks one advocate. "I'm not sure I understand your position," he tells another.

The Supreme Court's oldest and most polite justice turns 82 on Saturday, but there are few signs he is slowing down or tiring of the job. Indeed, Stevens has the buoyant energy of a person decades younger, and he remains one of the court's quickest wits, sharpest thinkers and best writers.

Appointed in 1975 by President Ford, Stevens was lauded from the start as exceedingly smart, strictly nonpartisan and highly independent.

But he was also seen as something of a puzzle. He did not line up with the dominant liberals, such as William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, who believed the death penalty was unconstitutional.

He also steered away from the conservatives, who wanted to roll back the right to abortion and break down the "wall of separation" between church and state. Stevens went his own way and had a reputation in legal circles of being unpredictable.

"We don't know what to make of a judge who doesn't have an agenda," said Kenneth Manaster, a Santa Clara University law professor.

Manaster's recent book, "Illinois Justice," describes how Stevens emerged as a figure of old-fashioned integrity in a Chicago scandal that brought down two of the state's top judges.

Stevens, Manaster said, has "a real commitment to following the law, case by case. That doesn't make for an easy headline, but it's exactly what a judge should do."

However, as the aged liberals on the court departed and the majority shifted right, Stevens emerged as one of most influential justices and leader of its liberal wing. Next in seniority to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, he assigns the writing of opinions when the chief justice is not in the majority.

There is debate among legal academics over whether Stevens moved to the left or stayed the same while the court moved to the right. Either way, Stevens has become the most consistently liberal voice on a conservative-leaning court.

More often than not, he is speaking in dissent. Frequently, he does so with dismay, as if to say his colleagues have failed to live up to their high calling.

When the court ended the Florida recount in the Bush vs. Gore case, Stevens' dissent was memorable.

"Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as the impartial guardian of the rule of law," he concluded.

He Writes His Own Opinions

Unlike his colleagues, he insists on writing his own opinions, often drafting them at home early in the morning. He then has his clerks fill in the footnotes and citations.

Clerks are awed by his ability to write clear decisions quickly and by his phenomenal memory.

"He would disappear over the weekend and come back with several opinions written," said Randolph Moss, a former Justice Department lawyer who clerked for Stevens in the early 1990s. "He would mention he wrote something on that a while ago and that it's at [Volume] 447, about [citation] 557 or 558."

Supreme Court opinions are published in volumes and lawyers rely on the citations to those volumes. But few can remember volume and page citations.

"Sure enough, you would go look up Volume 447 at 557, and there would be the opinion to cite," Moss said.

Stevens also believes he and his clerks must look at all appeal petitions that arrive at the court--more than 7,000 per year.

The other eight justices "pool" their law clerks and assign one of them to digest each petition. That person, usually a recent law school graduate, writes a memo setting forth the legal issue and recommending whether it be heard by the full court or dismissed.

Stevens uses three clerks, not the usual four. And over the years, he has had more minorities and women as clerks than any other justice, as well as several with physical disabilities.

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