Justice John Paul Stevens, who announced his retirement Friday, will not be remembered as the champion of a distinctive theory of the U.S. Constitution or as the author of a number of notable landmark rulings. But in almost 35 years on the Supreme Court, the former antitrust lawyer from Chicago epitomized an approach to judging that always serves the court well: dispassionate, deliberative, but also determined to adapt to changes in the life of the nation. In choosing a successor, President Obama is under no obligation to clone Stevens; but he should insist that his nominee share these qualities.
Stevens is routinely referred to as "the leader of the court's liberal wing," an appellation that sometimes seems to be part of his name. It's a fair description, but one of relatively recent vintage. For a long time Stevens was known not for influence over his colleagues but for idiosyncratic dissents. More recently he has demonstrated that he can craft majorities on closely divided issues, notably the propriety of the George W. Bush administration's tactics in the war on terrorism.
He also became a trenchant critic of a lack of judicial restraint by the court's conservatives, accusing them just this year of creating "a dramatic break from our past" by ending restrictions on corporate spending on election campaigns. But over his long career, Stevens sometimes has voted on the conservative side. In the landmark 1978 Bakke case, he wrote that a white applicant's civil rights were violated by a University of California medical school's affirmative-action policy. In 1989, he dissented from a ruling providing 1st Amendment protection for burning the American flag as a political protest -- a position he still defends.