Schapiro: Under Stevens, 'No institution and no person was above the law'

By Robert Schapiro | July 17, 2019

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Robert Schapiro, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law at Emory, reflects on the career and legacy of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who died July 16. Schapiro served as a clerk for Justice Stevens during the court’s 1991-1992 term.

Justice John Paul Stevens’ jurisprudence was rooted in a humanism that honored reason and individual dignity, and a patriotism that understood the United States as a vibrant, unified republic committed to fundamental ideals of freedom and justice. It is a vision that is under much stress on the current Supreme Court.

In cases testing the limits of the war on terror, Justice Stevens wrote important opinions requiring the United States government to provide fair procedures, even for those accused of plotting to attack the nation. His experience serving in the Navy in World War II left him with a deep appreciation of the ideals of justice and dignity as defining features of the American tradition. 

His opposition to unbridled executive power was nonpartisan. He wrote majority opinions limiting the reach of President Bush’s military tribunals and denying immunity from suit to President Clinton. No institution and no person was above the law.

When his colleagues sought to limit the scope of federal authority, citing the importance of the dignity and autonomy of the states, Justice Stevens affirmed a strong vision of a national government that ruled in the name of all of the people of the United States. 

Some of Justice Stevens’ most important opinions came in arcane cases dealing with statutes and administrative regulations. When interpreting congressional enactments, he always sought to honor the purpose underlying the statute.

He and his long-time friendly adversary Justice Antonin Scalia often sparred about the possibility of looking beyond the text of the statute to find the broader goals. In a characteristic opinion in 1991, Justice Stevens chided his colleagues for putting on “thick grammarian's spectacles” and ignoring the evidence of congressional purpose. 

Justice Stevens’ respect for reason and expertise, as well as his judicial humility, underlay his most widely cited opinion in Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council in 1984. That case established the principle of Chevron deference, the practice of deferring to the views of administrative agencies tasked by Congress with implementing a statute.

All of these positions are under attack in the current Supreme Court. A five-Justice majority has shown great deference for presidential assertions of national security and skepticism about the reach of national authority. A majority often emphasizes statutory text and downplays congressional purpose. Chevron deference has come under criticism. The Supreme Court’s recent rejection of challenges to partisan gerrymandering reflects its lack of faith in the ability of judges to use their reason and experience to determine manageable standards.

While Justice Stevens was a model of personal humility, he had great faith in the ability of judges to make rational determinations guided by human reason. His was an optimism born of faith in the ability of individuals and nations to overcome great challenges, a belief that the ideals of reason and fairness would eventually prevail. 

Justice Stevens’ death marks the passing of an extraordinarily powerful combination of deep humility and broad faith in the ability, and duty, of judges and nations to realize humane values through rational deliberation.