RIP Justice John Paul Stevens
RIP Justice John Paul Stevens
Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who served the bench between 1975 and 2010 and died on Tuesday at age 99, was known for playing a major role during a crucial era for the Court and his evolving legal views.
Described by The New York Times as a “low-key Republican” who became an “ardent champion” of the court’s liberal wing, Stevens wrote the majority opinions in major cases, including one that prevented military commissions from conducting trials for Guantánamo detainees and another declaring that the Constitution does not permit executing the mentally disabled.
But the bow tie-wearing justice wasn’t held in high regard for his jurisprudence alone. Stevens was also reportedly known around the court for being a nice guy, treating others “with sensitivity and respect,” the Times reports.
One former law clark, Christopher Eisgruber, wrote in a 1993 essay about Stevens’ actions during a party for new law clerks. An older male justice instructed one of the few female clerks present at the party to serve coffee before Stevens arrived. When he got there, Stevens walked up to the young clerk and thanked her for serving the coffee. Then he made her stop. “I think it’s my turn now,” he said before taking over the job.
It’s tempting to say that we will not see his like again, but I just don’t want to think that. I hope his example will be seen by young lawyers as an inspiration.
I wrote a while back about Stevens’ position on guns:
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Repeal and rewrite the 2nd Amendment
Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has written a NYT op-ed suggesting that since the high court decided back in 2008 to define the 2nd Amendment as an individual right maybe the best way to deal with guns is to repeal the 2nd Amendment. Taking that absurd argument away from the gun proliferation zealots so the nation can have some common sense regulations would be a good first step.
I wrote about that ruling and Stevens’ theories about it a while back for Salon:
In the wake of the horrific Isla Vista, California, mass killing, Americans have once again engaged the debate over gun proliferation. Victims’ families issue primal cries for regulation of these deadly weapons and gun activists respond by waving the Constitution and declaring their “fundamental right” to bear arms is sacrosanct. Indeed, such right-wing luminaries as Joe the plumber, who not long ago shared the stage with the Republican nominees for president and vice president, said explicitly:
“Your dead kids don’t trump my constitutional rights.”
“This unfortunate accident happened after the ad, but it does highlight that I want to get rid of, repeal, and replace [opponent] Bruce Braley’s Obamacare. And it also shows that I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. That is a fundamental right.”
This argument is set forth by gun proliferation advocates as if it has been understood this way from the beginning of the republic. Indeed, “fundamental right to bear arms” is often spat at gun regulation advocates as if they have heard it from the mouths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson themselves. But what none of them seem to acknowledge (or, more likely, know) is that this particular legal interpretation of the Second Amendment was validated by the Supreme Court all the way back in … 2008. That’s right. It was only six years ago that the Supreme Court ruled (in a 5-4 decision with the conservatives in the majority, naturally) that there was a “right to bear arms” as these people insist has been true for over two centuries. And even then it isn’t nearly as expansive as these folks like to pretend.
For instance, that gun-grabbing hippie Justice Antonin Scalia went out of his way in that decision to say that beyond the holding of handguns in the home for self-defense, regulations of firearms remained the purview of the state and so too was conduct. He wrote that regulating the use of concealed weapons or barring the use of weapons in certain places or restricting commercial use are permitted. That’s Antonin Scalia, well known to be at the far-right end of the legal spectrum on this issue. Most judges had always had a much more limited interpretation of the amendment.
Justice John Paul Stephens discussed his long experience with Second Amendment jurisprudence in his book “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” and notes that when he came on the Supreme Court there was literally no debate among the justices, conservative or liberal, over the idea that the Second Amendment constituted a “fundamental right” to bear arms. Precedents going all the way back to the beginning of the republic had held that the state had an interest in regulating weapons and never once in all its years had declared a “fundamental right” in this regard.
So, what happened? Well, the NRA happened. Or more specifically, a change in leadership in the NRA happened. After all, the NRA had long been a benign sportsman’s organization devoted to hunting and gun safety. It wasn’t until 1977, that a group of radicals led by activists from the Second Amendment Foundation and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms took control and changed the direction of the group to one dedicated to making the Second Amendment into a “fundamental right.”
What had been a fringe ideology was then systematically mainstreamed by the NRA, a program that prompted the retired arch conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger to say that the Second Amendment:
“Has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime”
The results are clear to see. Mass shootings are just the tip of the iceberg. Today we have people brandishing guns in public, daring people to try to stop them in the wake of new laws legalizing open carry law even in churches, bars and schools. People “bearing arms” show up at political events, silently intimidating their opponents, making it a physical risk to express one’s opinion in public. They are shooting people with impunity under loose “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” legal theories, which essentially allow gun owners to kill people solely on the ground that they “felt threatened.” Gun accidents are epidemic. And this, the gun proliferation activists insist, is “liberty.”
Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice (at NYU School of Law) has thoroughly documented all this history in his book, “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” a bit of which was excerpted in Politico magazine. He recommends that progressives who care about this issue think long and hard about how the right was able to turn this around, making a specific case for taking constitutional arguments seriously and using their “totemic” stature to advance the cause. He suggests that they adopt a similarly systematic approach, keeping this foremost in mind:
Molding public opinion is the most important factor. Abraham Lincoln, debating slavery, said in 1858, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” The triumph of gun rights reminds us today: If you want to win in the court of law, first win in the court of public opinion.
In his book, Justice John Paul Stevens suggest a modest tweak to the Second Amendment to finally make clear what the founders obviously intended:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”
Emotional claims that the right to possess deadly weapons is so important that it is protected by the federal Constitution distort intelligent debate about the wisdom of particular aspects of proposed legislation designed to minimize the slaughter caused by the prevalence of guns in private hands. Those emotional arguments would be nullified by the adoption of my proposed amendment. The amendment certainly would not silence the powerful voice of the gun lobby; it would merely eliminate its ability to advance one mistaken argument.
This is important. As Waldman notes, where the NRA Headquarters once featured words about safety on the facade of its building, it is now festooned with the words of the Second amendment. Well, some of them anyway:
Visitors might not notice that the text is incomplete. It reads: “.. the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
The first half—the part about the well regulated militia—has been edited out.
If they truly believed the 2nd Amendment was absolute and totally clear, you’d think they’d show all the language, wouldn’t you? One can only conclude that they are trying to hide something: its real meaning.
His dissent in Bush vs Gore will be seen as historic. He called them out for their partisanship and degradation of the judiciary. Which is certainly was.
He will be missed.