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Notable case opinions by John Paul Stevens

April 10, 2010

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John Paul Stevens has been a prolific writer of case opinions over his 34-year career with the Supreme Court. Unlike most justices, Stevens penned most of his opinions and became known for his clear, precise, down-to-earth language. A look at some notable opinions:

Writing for the majority

1978, Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation. In a 5-4 ruling, Stevens wrote that the FCC has the power to regulate indecent material over the airwaves, giving the agency broad leeway in interpreting what’s indecent and allowing it to bar unwanted speech during hours children might be watching or listening. The case resulted from the famous broadcast of comedian George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words’’ routine.

1984, Sony v. Universal Studios. In a 5-4 ruling, Stevens wrote that consumers do not violate copyright law when they tape programs with their video cassette recorders and manufacturers of recording devices cannot be liable for infringement. The precedent has sheltered a wide array of technology innovators from lawsuits.

1998, Clinton v. City of New York. In a 6-3 ruling, he stated the presidential line-item veto of budgets violates the Constitution because it would allow the executive branch to usurp legislative powers.

2002, Atkins v. Virginia. In a 6-3 ruling, he argued that applying the death penalty to mentally disabled criminals violates the cruel and unusual punishment ban in the Eighth Amendment.

2005, Kelo v. City of New London (Conn.). In a 5-4 ruling, he defended cities’ use of the eminent domain principle to condemn houses so that a private development could proceed.

2006, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. In a 5-3 ruling, he held that the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to hear cases from detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba and that the Bush administration did not have authority to set up military commissions without congressional authorization.

Writing in dissent

1989, Texas v. Johnson. Against a 5-4 ruling declaring the burning of the US flag was protected speech under the First Amendment, Stevens wrote: “The ideas of liberty and equality have been an irresistible force in motivating leaders, . . . the Philippine Scouts who fought at Bataan, and the soldiers who scaled the bluff at Omaha Beach. . . . If those ideas are worth fighting for and our history demonstrates that they are, it cannot be true that the flag that uniquely symbolizes their power is not itself worthy of protection from unnecessary desecration.’’

2000, Bush v. Gore. Against a 5-4 ruling that halted the recount of votes in Florida for the 2000 presidential election, he argued: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, 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.’’

2010, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Denouncing the 5-4 ruling that held the First Amendment allows corporate financing of independent political advertisements on behalf or against political candidates, Stevens, in a 90-page dissent, wrote “the court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding. . . . It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.’’