With Longevity on Court, Stevens's Center-Left Influence Has Grown

President Bush meets with John Paul Stevens, second from left, and fellow Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, Antonin Scalia, John G. Roberts Jr. and Sandra Day O'Connor, who has retired.
President Bush meets with John Paul Stevens, second from left, and fellow Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, Antonin Scalia, John G. Roberts Jr. and Sandra Day O'Connor, who has retired. (By Ken Heinen -- Associated Press)

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By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

One day last summer, an unusual baseball practice took place at Bluemont Park in Arlington. A white-haired gentleman in owlish glasses tossed one pitch after another to a female catcher half his age, trying to hit the strike zone.

They were Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, 85, and his daughter Susan Mullen, 42 -- getting ready for Sept. 14, when Stevens was to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Wrigley Field, home of his beloved Chicago Cubs.

After weeks of warm-ups with his daughter and others, Stevens took the mound at Wrigley -- and did not blow his big moment. His fastball came in high and only a bit wide of the plate.

"It was a thrill for him, an absolute thrill," Mullen said. "It was more the little boy in him than the Supreme Court justice."

Born in Chicago on April 20, 1920, Stevens has not been a little boy for many years. As of Jan. 9, he is the third-oldest person ever to serve on the high court, trailing only Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Roger B. Taney. But he shows no sign of retiring and remains almost as vigorous as he was when President Gerald R. Ford, a Republican, appointed him in 1975.

Stevens's remarkable staying power has been good for liberals. At a time of conservative ascendancy on the court, he anchors a four-justice center-left bloc that would probably shrink to three if President Bush could appoint his successor. After the confirmation of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, the liberal radio network Air America began playing "Hang On Stevens," a parody of the 1960s hit "Hang On Sloopy." The song implores: "Just wait until Bush leaves before you resign."

If anything, Stevens's influence has grown in recent years. He has a knack for building coalitions across ideological lines, and he makes shrewd use of his prerogatives as the senior associate justice. It is largely because of him that a court with seven Republican-appointed members, and nominally headed by a conservative, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, produced a string of relatively liberal results in recent cases.

In the past half-decade, the court has upheld affirmative action in higher education; approved a federal campaign finance law; abolished the death penalty for minors and the mentally retarded; rejected key claims of the property-rights movement; and given suspected terrorists held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, access to federal court.

In each of those decisions, Rehnquist dissented, joined by fellow conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- while Stevens, as the senior justice in the majority, either wrote the court's opinion or picked the justice who did.

"He's a remarkable figure," said Dennis Hutchinson, a law professor and Supreme Court historian at the University of Chicago. "If you looked at his first three or four years on the court, you'd say he was a quirky middle-of-the-roader with no vision and not interested in playing the game. But 30 years later, he's moved into a very influential position. On a court with no true liberals in the '60s sense of the word, he's gotten as much out of the court in terms of left-wing results as anyone could."

Early in his court career, Stevens reached some conservative results. In 1976, he cast a fifth vote to permit states to reauthorize the death penalty just four years after the court had invalidated it, and later he voted to strike down strict affirmative-action plans in university admissions and government contracting.

Stevens displayed his independence through frequent concurring and dissenting opinions in which he explained the gradations of difference between his views and those of his colleagues.

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