John Paul Stevens: 95 & Going Strong

John Paul Stevens

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, a man of many accomplishments, comes across as a man of few regrets. The latter might be summed up in two words: Citizens United. His regrets over that controversial 5-4 decision, handed down just months before he left the Supreme Court, are strong, and many.

Stevens, who turned 95 in April, appeared recently at an event in Washington DC co-sponsored by the Alliance for Justice and George Washington University Law School. Introduced by AFJ President Nan Aron, Stevens was interviewed by Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick and Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart.

Stevens demurred on several issues such as the benefits or evils of social media and citizen journalists: “I’m not a good person to ask about that.” But on most points he was crystal clear.

Re political candidates having “a litmus test” for potential Supreme Court nominees? Even as to Citizens United, “it’s a bad idea. But the (Citizens United) case should be overruled.” Throughout the interview Stevens referred to the case as bad for the country and the future, and damaging to the basic principles of democracy, “which should be ‘one person, one vote’ and not (decisions hinging) on a bunch of money.”

Asked by Capehart why he had changed from the conservative he was considered when first named to the bench to his later identification as a liberal, Stevens said, “I didn’t change, the Court changed.” Every member appointed from 1981-91, he pointed out, was more conservative than his predecessor.Scales of justice

On electoral reform, another issue Stevens sees as imperative, he said “some things can be done at the state level. The right to contribute (to campaigns, etc) should have some geographical boundaries. Excessive photo IDs have never made sense.”

Stevens, in response to a question from Lithwick about “bombast and aggressive, ideological arguments” in the Court, said that “ideology is not good. That’s one reason I am against televising arguments, which would have an adverse impact on the deliberating process. I believe firmly in people knowing the institution, but not if it has an adverse effect on the institution itself.” Possibly because some member might be a camera hog, Lithwick interposed? “Any one of the nine. And I would include myself.”

Talking briefly about interactions among the justices, Stevens – known to have had a close relationship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia – gave the impression that the Court does indeed function as intended. “I think John Roberts is a very good Chief Justice,” he said. “He executes the duties of Chief Justice well, although I disagree with some of his decisions.”

Stevens recalled stumbling over a few words while giving his dissent in Citizens United. “I said to myself, ‘You’re not as articulate as you were.’ And that’s when I stepped down.”

Fielding questions five years later, the renowned Justice showed no problem articulating his thoughts. Including the need for electoral reform – and the need to overturn Citizens United.

Bernie Sanders, presidential candidate?

Bernie Sanders 3.30.15

Bernie Sanders, the feisty Vermont senator introduced as “Independent in every sense of the word” isn’t likely to change if he runs for President. And if he does run – a suggestion that brought the evening’s loudest applause during a recent appearance at the Commonwealth Club of California – it should not be dull.

Within the first several minutes of his talk Sanders had ticked off a list of reasons he might indeed be tempted to enter the presidential fray: “Income inequality, planetary challenges, growing disillusionment with the establishment, massive greed, reckless and illegal behavior on the part of Wall Street resulting in millions of people losing their jobs and homes, a corporate establishment that cares only about its own interest…

“The American middle class,” Sanders says, “has been disappearing for the last 40 years. Forty-five million Americans live in poverty. Despite the Affordable Care Act, 35 million are still uninsured. The U.S. is the only major country that does not guarantee healthcare as a right.”

Sanders deplores what he sees as a movement toward oligarchy, with a handful of very rich holding the reins of power. Within that handful are the Koch brothers. Citing their 1980s Libertarian campaign goals, Sanders lists a few expectations of what oligarchic control would bring: abolition of Medicare, Medicaid and the postal service, abandonment of all government welfare, abolition of the minimum wage…

Sanders’ rapid-fire listing of grim possibilities ahead, shared in both his prepared remarks and in the Q&A moderated by San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, had more than an occasional campaign-speech sound. “It would be a very sad state of affairs if Hillary (Rodham Clinton) ran without serious opposition,” he said. Nor does he have much enthusiasm for likely Republican candidate Jeb Bush. “There clearly is something wrong with the political system if we’re not seeing dozens and dozens of vibrant young leaders whose dad wasn’t president or whose husband wasn’t president.”

Sanders & Campos 3.30.15His own platform would likely have the overturning of Citizens United and movement toward publicly funded election as a primary plank, a change Sanders sees as necessary to restoring democracy to our democratic system. Sharing the top would be fixing income inequality, an injustice he terms obscene and grotesque. “Between 2013 and 2015,” he said, “the 14 wealthiest people – Gates, Kochs, Buffett – saw their wealth increase by $157 billion. Not what they’re worth; increase. That $157 billion is more wealth than is owned by the bottom 40 percent of the American people. One family, the Walton family, owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent.” Sanders on income inequality is Sanders in a rage against injustice.

The senator also has solutions: make public colleges free, weatherize houses, invest in solar, build a national rail system. Overturn Citizens United.

“The issue is not what happens in Congress,” he says; “it’s what happens in the grassroots. You’re going to have to start listening to the working class, not just billionaire corporations. Mobilize young people to say ‘stop spending billions on the military, spend on education.’

“This stuff is not easy,” the possible-candidate adds. “These guys who have got it all want more.” And Sanders is quick to say that he has few friends on Wall Street, in corporate America or in the military-industrial complex. “But I have seven beautiful grandchildren,” he adds, “and I’ll be damned if they’re not going to live in a country we can be proud of.”

Which sounds a little like he may run for President.

Things that matter

My daughter, having survived intact when her truck was totaled on Christmas Eve, mourned the absence of her pit/Great Pyrenees puppy, who took off when the truck flipped. Apple the dog apparently decided things might be calmer in the wilds of suburban Atlanta. (Flo the very old part-Lab, opted to stay put; a two-dog loss might have been too much for Mom.)

Apple’s disappearance was the bad news. Here’s the good news: the outpouring of support, in the form of e-mails, Facebook postings and offers from childhood friends who hadn’t been seen in years to go search local pounds was overwhelming. It gets REALLY hard to stay forlorn in the face of love and support from friends, family and people you never heard of who are offering comfort and help.

At Nancy Pelosi‘s annual January gathering there was another kind of support in evidence — and for me another reminder of the value of lasting friendship. I got a quick hug from my favorite star Democrat, California senator Mark Leno, who is often talked about as a potential successor to Pelosi. He gets my vote: Mark Leno is smart, level-headed, perceptive and impeccably ethical. (We could do with more politicians who’ve had rabbinical training.) He is also still graciously loyal to his life partner Doug Jackson, who died of AIDS decades ago in the early years of that grim time. Doug was the son of old friends of mine in Decatur, Georgia, so my affection for the good senator goes far beyond politics.

The bad news is that wars and sadness are everywhere. (Though Pelosi listed her priorities: jobs, safety — read: gun control, immigration reform and overturn Citizens United; that would spread joy.) The good news is that friendships are more powerful than all of the above. And if you hang onto them you can nearly always get a hug when you need one.

Justice O’Connor still has opinions

Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor (Photo credit: kyle tsui)

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, speaking at a sold-out event in San Francisco October 22, aimed the bulk of her remarks at the school children and law students in the balconies:  study hard, keep your eyes and ears open, and spend a lot of time at iCivics.

Founded by O’Connor in 2009, iCivics is designed “to reverse Americans’ declining civic knowledge and participation” and keep democracy secure by educating and enlightening the next generation, and the groundbreaking justice means to get this done.

In addition to plugging what is clearly her primary passion, O’Connor got around to a few other issues dear to her heart, such as states that elect their judges to federal courts. “Which means they have to campaign,” she noted. “Campaigns cost money. Guess who contributes campaign money? The lawyers who will appear before those judges.” Bad idea. Admitting that California is one of those states, moderator Mary Bitterman said, “I guess we should look into that.” “Yes, you should,” O’Connor shot back.

Dozens of audience questions concerned the Supreme Court, past (Citizens United,) present and future. Could she envision an all-female court some day? “Certainly.” But for the most part she declined to comment on decisions, or speculate on the future as it relates to details like the Republican commitment to overturning Roe v Wade.

So this report can only direct readers to iCivics, a fine spot indeed. Games will teach you about juries, voting, balance of power — citizenship. It’s designed for students of all ages, with special pages for teachers, and it’s perfectly OK for adults, O’Connor remarked, “if you’re a dum dum.” Whereupon I visited the site, played a couple of games, learned a little more about democracy.

Retired, perhaps, but Justice O’Connor is in no way retiring. May she live long and prosper.

On showing up at the polls

After all these decades, all these elections — and I’ve never missed one — I mailed in my absentee ballot for the first time ever a few days ago. It leaves a lot to be desired.

Not that voting absentee isn’t perfectly respectable, or was a capricious decision. This post is being written from the friendly skies of Virgin America en route to Manhattan, which would make getting to the polls in San Francisco tomorrow somewhat of a challenge. But absentee is just not the same.

Showing up at the polls makes a statement: I took all this trouble to come say hello, sign my name, stand in the little booth, schmooze with the neighbors and collect my bright red I VOTED sticker. With absentee you just drop the envelope in the mail. And don’t even get a sticker.

Politics being the messy, frustrating mess it currently is, I know people who are staying home and not voting any direction. Doesn’t seem wise to me. Given the critical issues ahead (Iran, another war? Horrors.  New Supreme Court nominees who’ll send reproductive rights back to the dark ages? Could we please revisit the Citizens United decision?….) I’m hoping staying home doesn’t catch on, unless you’re in favor of war and Citizens United and oppose women’s rights.

I’m looking forward to a stay in Manhattan, beginning just before voting day. But I’m going to miss walking around with an I VOTED sticker on.