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.

Wit, Wisdom and Joe Biden at USNA

Covers awayHe may not be known for his oratorical/linguistic skills, but as commencement speakers go Joe Biden did himself proud at the U.S. Naval Academy’s recent graduation and commissioning ceremonies: a few pearls of wisdom, a handful of jokes (some better than others), a smattering of policy comments and it was all over in a matter of moments.

For the serious heart of his talk, Vice President Biden spoke of the significance of the planet’s waters, from the Arctic Ocean to the Baltic Sea to – most specifically – the Pacific. He recounted a conversation with Chinese president Xi Jinping during which he was asked why he referred to the U.S. as a Pacific power, and he responded, “Because we are.” Biden added that he told the Chinese leader further, “Mr. President, you owe your stability over the last 30 years to the United States Navy and military.”

Pacific oceanThe midshipmen were congratulated on having “spent summers on real ships instead of internships,” and for having a job immediately upon graduation. “You chose to join the real 1%,” Biden told them, “to protect the rest of us 99%.”

But it was Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, USN, Chief of Naval Operations, who got in the best words in the briefest amount of time, offering four lines of advice before administering the oath of office to the Navy-bound members of the Class of 2015.

“Guard your integrity,” the Admiral said. “Learn unconditional trust.”

His third piece of advice probably hasn’t been given to graduating seniors over very many years: “Keep your social media private.”

And lastly, “Call your mother once a week.”

If any of those 1,070 men and women commissioned by Adm Greenert (and General Joseph Dunford, USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps), were listening, someone from the USNA Class of 2015 could certainly wind up Chief of Naval Operations – or Vice President of the US.