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Why Justice Stevens matters

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  April 9, 2010 02:25 PM

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Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Known for his personal modesty and independent legal reasoning, Justice Stevens embodies the best of the American judiciary.

Already, pundits have started speculating who will be the next appointee to the highest court in the land -- including some critical insights on what Justice Stevens' retirement could mean for American jurisprudence.

Politicians, meanwhile, are positioning themselves for what is bound to be a highly partisan and bruising confirmation battle between the White House and the Senate -- a prospect that makes one feel weary just thinking about it.

A constructive place to start the public conversation is to reflect on the many contributions to individual liberty that Justice Stevens made as a Supreme Court justice -- and why each of us should be grateful for the freedom we enjoy as a result.

Appointed by Gerald Ford in 1975, Justice Stevens earned an early reputation as a maverick. Upon his retirement some 35 years later, he was known as a master tactician, champion of individual liberty, and fierce defender of our nation's system of checks and balances.

Perhaps due to his early years as a practicing lawyer, Justice Stevens always was highly attuned to the facts of a case. He never forgot that the lives of real human beings are affected by legal rulings. Such real-world experience will be sorely missed, particularly when compared to the academic backgrounds and abstract judicial reasoning of many of the current Justices and potential nominees.

Consider the real lives made better by Justice Stevens. On the high court, he promoted racial equality, supported gay rights and defended a woman’s right to choose. He authored the first decision recognizing free speech rights on the Internet and just a few years ago concluded that the death penalty is unconstitutional.

In one of his final opinions -- a dissent from the majority ruling in the Citizen's United case regarding campaign finance and corporate speech --Justice Stevens' real-world understanding of the facts was clearly evident in his warning that unfettered corporate speech would drown out the "voice of the real people." (Full disclosure: the ACLU submitted a narrow amicus brief on the other side in that case and currently the national organization is engaged in a review of its position on campaign finance reform).

Justice Stevens also made history when he authored two of the four critical decisions that reasserted the right of the Court to rein in the excesses of the Executive Branch. Without his leadership, the Bush administration might well as succeeded in its effort to hold even innocent people indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay -- without any rights or any access to U.S. courts.

Justice Stevens seemed to understand that at stake was not simply the fate of the Guatanamo detainees but, as important, the fate of American democracy and the rule of law itself.

From beginning to end, Justice Stevens has been an independent thinker, fiercely committed to the rule of the law and the Court’s role in preserving it. Our nation would be well served by holding him out as the standard bearer for our next justice.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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