After former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died on Tuesday, media reports of his passing widely described him as the longtime leader of the high court's liberal wing. This was true enough, of course, but for those not versed in the ins and outs of the high court over time, it told only a small portion of the story.
One can imagine someone on the younger side, an individual who knows a little about today's hyper-partisan court, assuming that Stevens had been some sort of lifelong liberal, undoubtedly having been named to the court by a Democratic president.
The truth, though, is a very different story indeed.
Stevens, who lived to be 99 years old, was named to the Supreme Court in 1975 by President Gerald Ford. He was a moderate Republican, back in a time when such creatures still roamed the Earth. Stevens was confirmed in the Senate in December 1975 by a vote of 98-0.
Though Stevens began his tenure on the high court as a sometime conservative, he was no one's ideologue. Rather, he often forged his own path. But over the years, as the Supreme Court moved rightward, Stevens slid to the left. By his retirement in 2010, his transformation had been complete.
At a 2005 symposium at Fordham University Law School marking his 30th year on the Supreme Court and his 35th as a judge, Stevens said his change in attitude had come about naturally. "I know that I, like most of my colleagues, have continued to participate in a learning process while serving on the bench," He said. "Learning on the job is essential to the process of judging," he added. "At the very least, I know that learning on the bench has been one of the most important and rewarding aspects of my own experience over the last 35 years."
Though one would hope that a current member of the Supreme Court might one day make a similar statement after a long tenure as a judge, pointing to the natural learning process as having been responsible for his or her evolution, such a wish seems little but fantasy, at least at the moment.
Imagine, say, either Associate Justice Clarence Thomas or Sam Alito, each a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who is about as immovable as the Supreme Court building itself, changing over time and chalking his new stance up to having learned on the job. Don't hold your breath.
The Supreme Court that Stevens left in 2010 was a far cry from the one he had joined in 1975, and not only because of the rightward shift it had undergone over those decades. It had also become more predictable, more ideological, another partisan branch of our federal government.
Perhaps no decision better summed up the changed landscape than the court's 5-4 ruling in the case that halted the recounting of votes in Florida in the overtime 2000 election that pitted Republican George W. Bush against Democrat Al Gore. That decision, with the five conservative justices in the majority, handed the keys to the Oval Office to Bush. In his dissent, Stevens wrote: "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."
-- The Republic of Springfield (Mass.)