Sunday, April 11, 2010

Judge Stevens: The Best Kind of Justice

John Paul Stevens will resign as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in a few months. It is probably an overstatement to say they don't make 'em like John Paul Stevens any more, but they certainly do not put 'em on the Supreme Court. A telling story from a former clerk to Associate Justice Stevens:

ONE of Justice Stevens’s trademarks is the courteousness with which he treats the lawyers who appear before the Supreme Court. When he wants to elicit information or make a point during oral argument, he typically interrupts the lawyer with the gentle preface, “May I ask you a question?”

During William Rehnquist’s tenure as chief justice, a lawyer was arguing in the court for the first time. When asked a question by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the nervous lawyer started her response with, “Well, Judge — ”

Chief Justice Rehnquist interrupted her. “That’s Justice Kennedy,” he said.

Shaken, the lawyer continued. A few minutes later, she responded to Justice David Souter by saying, “Yes, Judge.” Chief Justice Rehnquist corrected her again: “That’s Justice Souter.” A couple of minutes later, she called Chief Justice Rehnquist himself a judge.

The chief justice leaned forward, his deep voice now at its sternest, to say, “Counsel is admonished that this court is composed of justices, not judges.”

Before the lawyer could say anything, Justice Stevens interjected: “It’s O.K., Counsel. The Constitution makes the same mistake.”
The Constitution refers to "Judges" of the Supreme Court; "Justice" is an affectation not found in the Constitution, created by small men seeking to be acknowledged as larger, men such as Chief Justice Rehnquist, who also placed clownish, theatrical gold stripes on his robe. (Article III of the Constitution also does not capitalize the "s" in Supreme Court.)

John Paul Stevens -- who enlisted at the time of Pearl Harbor and helped crack invaluable codes during wartime, was an anti-corruption prosecutor, and pursued justice at the highest levels of his profession -- required neither embellished title nor flourished sleeve. To John Paul Stevens, justice is the point, not a title.

Similarly worthwhile recollections: "My Boss, Justice Stevens."

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