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March 26, 2021 CHAIR STATEMENT

Chair Statement on the Passing of Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens

Wilson Adam Schooley
Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and former Section Chair Steve Hanlon at the 2005 ABA Thurgood Marshall Award Dinner.

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and former Section Chair Steve Hanlon at the 2005 ABA Thurgood Marshall Award Dinner.

During the 2005 ABA Thurgood Marshall Award Dinner, Justice Stevens delivered the Keynote Address for the recipient, Hon. Abner J. Mikva.

Yesterday we lost a beacon of justice who sadly seems almost an anachronism today: learned and committed to learning and growing on the job, kind and courteous to all, classy, nuanced and non-partisan in expression, and ever thoughtful and principled.

A gentle Republican and former Chicago antitrust lawyer appointed by the unelected Republican President Gerald Ford, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens blazed his own quietly rebellious and independent trail across 35 years on the high court, becoming the third longest serving justice ever.

Initially resistant by training and temperament to bold protection of social justice imperatives in matters like the death penalty and racially restorative government policies—voting with the majority in the Bakke decision invalidating affirmative action medical school admissions, his open and searching mind led him to learn and evolve on the bench.

Learning on the job is essential to the process of judging. At the very least, I know that learning on the bench has been one of the most important and rewarding aspects of my own experience over the last 35 years.

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens

And learn he did. The moderate Republican never let party politics define or confine him. In Richmond v. J.A. Croson Company in 1989, he disagreed with the majority’s premise that “a racial classification is never permissible except as a remedy for a past wrong,” writing that sometimes such a classification is permissible when it considers race as a policy tool for building a better future. Though he had initially supported the resumption of the death penalty, over time his view evolved. In 2005, he told us here in the ABA that evidence that “a substantial number of death sentences have been imposed erroneously” was “profoundly significant…because it indicates that there must be serious flaws in our administration of criminal justice.” He wrote the opinion in Atkins v. Virginia, declaring that the Constitution does not permit executing the mentally disabled. In Baze v. Rees in 2008, he wrote that it was time to reconsider “the justification for the death penalty itself.”

He gave birth to the “Chevron Defense” in the 1984 case Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, holding that when a federal statute is ambiguous, judges should generally defer to the interpretation of the agency charged with administering that statute rather than impose their own views of what Congress must have or should have meant. Justice Stevens wrote: “Federal judges — who have no constituency — have a duty to respect legitimate policy choices made by those who do.” Dissenting in Bush v. Gore, he wrote that that although the actual winner of the presidential election might remain unknown, “the identity of the loser is perfectly clear”: It was “the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”