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Below is my column in USA Today on the passing of Associate Justice John Paul Stevens. I have another column appearing today in the Sunday Washington Post’s Outlook Section. I remain surprised by the comparatively light coverage of the passage of this great man who gave so much to the country. I disagreed with Stevens on various cases, but I always held him in the highest regard as a person and as a jurist.
The last time I spoke with former Justice John Paul Stevens was in 2017 at a reception for Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch after his investiture on the Supreme Court. Stevens was sitting near a corner looking frail and alone. I went over and immediately teased him over my seething jealousy over his scoring tickets to Game 4 of the 2016 World Series. Both Stevens and I grew up ardent Chicago Cubs fans and Stevens just gave his signature smile, shrugged, and said, when you pass 90, “people are in a hurry to give you stuff.”
When Stevens passed last night at 99, most of us felt that we had not given him nearly enough. Stevens transformed this country in decades of decisions, but most people only have a passing knowledge of who he was. That is how he wanted it. No, he is not the “real RBG” or Scalia. He was not a rock star. He was a jurist who spoke entirely through his opinions and what he said has helped shape the lives of every American.
Few justices have left a footprint on American jurisprudence to match John Paul Stevens. It was not simply because he served 35 years — the third-longest in Supreme Court history. It was way that Stevens ruled. He wrote opinions that were anchored in simple, coherent values that he saw in the Constitution. Stevens changed on the court from a conservative to one of the most liberal justices in history. Along the way, he found his voice as a strong defender of individual rights and an advocate for a Constitution that must evolve with society — a living document capable of securing the guarantees of the Framers in a new and changing world.
His decisions remain the foundation for whole areas of law. He is the author of Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., — a decision that controls how agency decisions are reviewed and enforced by the courts. He wrote core cases under the First Amendment, the commerce clause and the Fourth Amendment that still define core rights for all Americans.
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