After 34 years on the bench, Stevens reflects on law, elections and Watergate
The lecture, titled “The Court, the Constitution and the Justice from Illinois” was moderated by University Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83. Eisgruber, who clerked for Stevens from 1989-90, opened the discussion with a query about the title of the Justice’s new book, “Five Chiefs.” Stevens explained that he wrote the work in response to the frequent questions he had received over the years about prominent leaders of the Supreme Court. Stevens said that he decided to record his recollections of the five chief justices he had worked with in the past, because the public is not well-informed regarding the role of the chief justice.
Few people, he said, recognize that the chief justice’s position also makes him the chancellor of the Smithsonian Institute. There are many other unique appointment responsibilities worth describing, Stevens joked, but the chief justice’s role on the court is essentially the same as that of the other justices.
“There are many people in the public who assume there is a dramatic difference between the office of the chief justice and the associate justices,” Stevens said, but “although he’s the presiding officer, he’s really one among nine equals.”
When asked about his disagreement with the past decisions of Associate Justice William Rehnquist, Stevens said he took issue primarily with Rehnquist’s reinforcement of the sovereign immunity clause of the Constitution, which is the idea that government should be insulated from legal proceedings.
“I have felt very deeply that the court’s sovereign immunity jurisprudence is incorrect and should be examined,” Stevens said. At the time of the nation’s founding, the states were free to incorporate or reject common law into their own constitutions, he explained. While drafting the Constitution, however, the founding fathers heatedly debated whether the doctrine of sovereign immunity fit into their new democracy. The idea, which Stevens said derived from common law, eventually became expressed in the nation’s law through a routine “misreading” of the 11th Amendment after the Constitution was written. Stevens said he is vehemently opposed to the idea of sovereign immunity, because “this particular doctrine is a doctrine that promotes injustice rather than justice,” he said.
Asked by a student how he would change the Constitution if he had the power to do so, Stevens replied, “Well, I think I’d just delete the 11th amendment.”
Eisgruber also questioned Stevens about some of the controversial decisions made by the Supreme Court in recent years. In 2010, the bitterly divided court ruled that the federal government may not ban direct corporate or union contributions to candidate campaigns or political parties. The case, known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, invoked much controversy over its claim that unlimited campaign contributions were protected under the First Amendment’s right of free speech.
“The basic problem,” Justice Stevens said of the ruling, “is the notion that money is the same as speech in terms of constitutional protection.” He noted that many citizens saw the ruling as unfair and said that, by the same logic, the expenditures that funded the Watergate break-ins could be seen as under the protection of the First Amendment.
When Eisgruber laughed and said that it was unlikely the current Supreme Court would consider the Watergate affair an exercise of free speech, Stevens replied, “Are you sure?”
The Supreme Court’s 2000 decision to stop the recount of contested Florida votes during the presidential race between former President George W. Bush and Al Gore was also an area of contention. Though the country may perhaps never know who the true winner of that election was, Stevens said, “The identity of the loser is perfectly clear: It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
He further said that he believed “that particular decision was quite wrong.” Stevens also discussed his position on affirmative action, as he had ruled against cases involving the principle in his earlier years as a justice but became a proponent of it later in his career.
The sea change in his view of affirmative action, Stevens said, came with the realization that “you should look at the future and the benefits that are available through diversity.” However, he noted, there is a vast difference between justifying affirmative action in the theoretical arena and trying to make it a “remedy for past sins.”
When asked about the ideological makeup of and division between justices on the current Supreme Court, Stevens noted that “there do seem to be more cases in which the same [ideological] line-ups occur,” but that the justices all maintain cordial relations and, in fact, like each other.
“It’s a very nice place to work,” he said of the court.
The lecture concluded with Eisgruber asking whether Stevens was optimistic about the future of the Supreme Court and the Constitution. Stevens answered with a single, resounding “Yes.”
Stevens served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court after being nominated by President Gerald Ford in 1975. Over his 34 terms in the court, Stevens wrote more than 1,400 opinions — roughly half of them were dissents — and retired in 2010, two years away from holding the all-time record for the longest Supreme Court appointment.
Before attending law school, Stevens served as an navy cryptographer and decoded Japanese messages during World War II. A lover of flight, Stevens was reputedly once given a white dove as a gift from Charles Lindbergh, as well as a gentle scolding by Amelia Earhart.
The event was jointly sponsored by the Princeton University Committee on Public Lectures and the Program in Law and Public Affairs.