Justice John Paul Stevens's fiercely modest judicial method

Justice John Paul Stevens's fiercely modest judicial method
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I had the privilege to know Justice John Paul Stevens while working as his sole law clerk during his first year in retirement. He was then reflecting on his judicial career and settling into his new role. As I helped where I could, I discovered a man whose sincere humility animated fierce commitments to justice, fairness, and the judicial role.

I first met Justice Stevens at my interview for the clerk’s job. Naturally, I was terrified. He sat on the Supreme Court. I had never held a law job. What could I say that wouldn’t sound foolish or pompous or both? Fortunately, his aim was not to test me but to know me. He was considering retiring, and with his characteristic, unassuming courtesy, he asked if I would mind working for a retired justice. I said no, and so began the best legal job I will ever hold.

I last saw Justice Stevens a decade later, last May, at a reunion of his law clerks. His judicial career spanned a remarkable four decades, so his clerks spanned generations too: Jeff Lehman, a former clerk who was later dean of my law school during my first year there, was at the reunion too. As we heard repeatedly how touched Justice Stevens was to see so many clerks present, Jeff remarked to me, “It’s as though he doesn’t realize that he’s the one who fundamentally transformed our career trajectories.”

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Both moments are classic Stevens. His modesty and effort to understand others’ points of view were not just commendable personality traits: They were core intellectual and professional commitments.

Both commitments were on display again early in Justice Stevens’s retirement, when he spoke at the 10th anniversary of the dedication of the National Japanese American Memorial. It was a notable choice for someone who spent most of World War II in the Navy at Pearl Harbor. Stevens spoke of returning to Pearl Harbor in 1994 to visit a memorial above a battleship the Japanese had sunk more than half a century before. He recalled his emotional reaction to seeing dozens of Japanese tourists: “Those people don’t really belong here.” But he then reflected that some might have lost relatives in the war or come to contemplate the horrors of all wars. “I realized that I was drawing inferences about every member of the tourist group that did not necessarily apply to any single one of them.” In such circumstances, “we should never pass judgment.”

Stevens then turned to a white-hot controversy of the day: whether a mosque should be located near where the Twin Towers once stood. He speculated that New Yorkers might have a similar hostile emotional reaction. But upon reflection, they might also realize that U.S. Muslims could have as much — if not more — reason to oppose violent Islamic extremists. The lesson: “Beware of stereotypical conclusions about groups of people that we don't know very well.”

The speech was characteristically big-minded and empathetic. Rather than play it safe, Stevens made himself doubly vulnerable. He invited criticism by striding into an emerging political controversy that most judges would avoid. And he did so by describing feelings that some might condemn. But by approaching both sides of the dispute with empathy, he lowered the emotional temperature and opened a potential path to reconciliation.

Here were the constituents of a judicial philosophy: The just result is a fair result, which requires seeking to understand all perspectives rather than over-relying on one’s preconceptions. It is hard work, and that is appropriate given a judge’s tremendous responsibility. If done right, the result is one that all sides may regard as just (though many will not, of course).

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In retirement, Stevens repeatedly returned to memories that reinforced this view of judging.  One was of his father’s politically charged embezzlement conviction being overturned on appeal, a reminder of the importance of judges who decide cases based on careful attention to the facts and law. Another was his commitment to writing his own opinions rather than letting clerks draft them, a reflection of the judge’s obligation to get it right. He similarly emphasized the importance of mastering the facts in every case, which he said almost always made the result clear.

Justice John Paul Stevens trusted judges to exercise judgment and demanded that they do so conscientiously and modestly. By exemplifying these commitments, he demonstrated their worth, hopefully enduringly. It is but one reason he will be missed. 

Sam Erman is professor of law at USC Gould School of Law. He is the author of Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Prior to joining USC Gould, Erman clerked for Judge John Paul Stevens and Judge Anthony M. Kennedy of the United States Supreme Court and Judge Merrick B. Garland of the United States Court of Appeals.