The law community has experienced a great loss with the passing of retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who died yesterday, July 16, 2019, at the age of 99. Appointed in 1975, Justice Stevens served the Court for thirty-five years and was known for his unique insights and commitment to civil rights, equality, and accountability.
Just before his thirtieth anniversary on the court in 2005, Fordham Law School had the honor of hosting Justice Stevens for a Fordham Law Review Symposium. The event, organized by Fordham Law Professor Abner Greene, a former clerk to Justice Stevens, examined his jurisprudence and celebrated his three decades on the bench. William Michael Treanor, then Dean of Fordham Law and now current Dean of the Georgetown Law Center, described the significance of the event in the 2006 issue of Fordham Law Review saying, “It brought together virtually all of the former clerks for Justice Stevens who are now in academia and other leading legal scholars at Fordham and throughout the country.” He continues his recollection sharing, “Justice Stevens’ remarks were a particular high point of the Symposium. Speaking the day after he swore in Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Stevens thoughtfully examined the ways in which a Justice’s views evolve over time.”
Treanor, who considers Justice Stevens one of his heroes recalled those same remarks once again as he spoke with NPR’s David Greene on today’s episode of Morning Edition about Justice Stevens’ passing. “He talked about learning on the job and the way in which thinking through cases, thinking through the law made him change his views over time but what was consistent was the commitment to getting the cases right.”
Treanor also shares another remarkable occurrence that took place around Justice Stevens’ visit to Fordham Law. It was the receipt of a letter from former President Gerald Ford who many have speculated may have regretted his decision to appoint Justice Stevens who would go on to be known as the liberal voice of the court. In it, Ford explains “that he was very proud of his selection of Justice Stevens to be on the court and that he would be happy if his legacy as President was assessed on the basis of his appointment of Justice Stevens,” shares Treanor.
Thoughtfully reflecting on Ford’s letter in the 2006 Fordham Law Review issue Treanor wrote, “Justice Stevens was named at a critical point in American history. In the wake of Watergate, faith in the rule of law was under challenge. President Ford decided that the nation needed a truly great jurist. With that standard to apply, the choice for President Ford was clear and the choice was clear to the Senate. History has shown the great wisdom of that choice.”
Concluding this morning’s NPR interview, Treanor expressed a sentiment felt by many, saying simply, “Justice Stevens’ passing is a great loss but he leaves a profound legacy.”
Letter from President Gerald Ford to former Fordham Law School Dean William Michael Treanor
Dear Dean Treanor:
Historians study the significant diplomatic, legislative and economic events that occurred during a Presidential term to evaluate that Presidency. Normally, little or no consideration is given to the long term effects of a President’s Supreme Court nominees. Eisenhower’s Earl Warren, John Adams’ John Marshall and Wilson’s Louis Brandeis immediately come to mind; although references to these great jurists are usually absent in Presidential biographies.
Let that not be the case with my Presidency. For I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination thirty years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court. I endorse his constitutional views on the secular character of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, on securing procedural safeguards in criminal case and on the constitution’s broad grant of regulatory authority to Congress. I include as well my special admiration for his charming wit and sense of humor; as evidence in his dissent in the 1986 commerce clause case of Maine v. Taylor and United States, involving the constitutionality of a Maine statute that broadly restricted any interstate trade of Maine’s minnows. In words perhaps somewhat less memorable then, “Shouting fire in a crowded theater,” Justice Stevens wrote, “There is something fishy about this case.”
He has served his nation well, at all times carrying out his judicial duties with dignity, intellect and without partisan political concerns. Justice Stevens has made me, and our fellow citizens, proud of my three decade old decision to appoint him to the Supreme Court. I wish him long life, good health and many more years on the bench.
GERALD R. FORD