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John Paul Stevens: Brilliant and Kind

Recollections on one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s longest-serving justices

Published in 2019 Washington DC Super Lawyers magazine

When attorneys and clerks discuss Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the longest-serving U.S. Supreme Court justices who died yesterday in Fort Lauderdale at the age of 99, one word that comes up frequently is “kind.” Another is “brilliant.”

“Justice Stevens is always so kind to the advocates,” said civil rights attorney Paul Hoffman in a 2007 feature on Southern California attorneys who have argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. “If all the judges were like him, it would be a pretty pleasant experience.”

“I still remember the feeling I had when I first walked into that large, marble building with vaulted ceilings,” said Teresa Wynn Roseborough on clerking for Stevens in the late 1980s. “During my time there, we really didn’t deal with any eye-popping cases that changed the course of jurisprudence. It was a boring year, in that sense, compared to some other terms. However, he was so brilliant, gracious, kind and open to questions and dialogue with clerks.”

Lewis J. Liman, who clerked for Stevens during the 1988-89 session, remembered Stevens talking legal issues in the clerks’ room before oral arguments. “He would tell us what thoughts he had. He would bounce ideas off of us and expected us to respond.” Douglas A. Winthrop, who clerked from 1992-93, said Stevens would do the first draft on opinions to make sure he completely understood the case. “Then he’d give it to us and say, ‘Now you take over and make it better.’”

For attorneys arguing for the first time before the Court, Stevens was often a booming voice asking questions, or telling attorneys their time was up. Thomas M. Wilson III felt Stevens might be predisposed against his position on Maryland’s regulation of the petroleum industry, since, as a judge on the 7th Circuit, he concurred with an opinion that went against the merits of Wilson’s argument. “I went in expecting to lose,” Wilson told us in 2007. Instead he won over Stevens and won 8-0.

Stevens was a popular answer to our recurring question “Which Supreme Court justice would you take to lunch?” And those who invited him already knew a lot about him. “Justice Stevens had a distinguished military career, serving as a naval officer after enlisting the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, then serving as a cryptologist in the Pacific theater,” said Elizabeth Pelypenko.

“We’re both originally from Chicago and share the peculiar experience of growing up on the South Side as Cubs fans,” said Steven Molo. “I’d like to hear how Justice Stevens’ personal and professional experiences influenced his judicial approach. He once represented a man who had a confession beaten out of him by the Chicago police. And his own father was convicted but ultimately exonerated of charges in connection with the financing of the Stevens Hotel—now the Conrad Hilton. His investigation of the former Illinois Supreme Court justices led to the establishment of the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board. … He had an excellent reputation as an advocate before going on the bench—leaving the great firm that would become Jenner & Block to found a litigation boutique doing high-stakes work.”

One of our favorite recollections is from Winthrop:

Stevens would tell us stories about being at the pool at his condo, and people only knew him as John Stevens and were shocked to learn years later who he was. He had a dentist ask him, “Do you do a lot of weddings? Because I notice you’re a justice.” They thought he was a justice of the peace. Another [time], he was talking to someone on the steps of the SCOTUS building and tourists asked him to move out of the way so they could take pictures.

When he retired from the bench in 2010, Winthrop said his former clerks helped create the John Paul Stevens Fellowship Foundation, which provides grants for law students to work unpaid summer internships in the public interest.

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