After years as justice, John Paul Stevens wants what's 'best for the court'

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- Around here, one of the most powerful men in the nation is known as plain old John Stevens -- courteous bridge player, early-morning regular at the country club's tennis courts, a quiet but active condo neighbor who checks his weight in the gym before heading off for his daily swim.

But those who cross paths with him in his second home of South Florida have the same question as the president of the United States, the leadership of Congress, the abortion rights combatants, the disgruntled conservative legal activists and the grateful civil libertarians, all of whom know him as Justice John Paul Stevens.

"Do you think he's going to retire?" asks his friend Raymond A. Doumar, an 83-year-old lawyer who met Stevens years ago while waiting for a tennis match.

Stevens, who turns 90 later this month, isn't quite ready to say. "I can tell you that I love the job, and deciding whether to leave it is a very difficult decision," he said in an interview. "But I want to make it in a way that's best for the court."

That would mean a decision sooner rather than later, in time for the nomination and confirmation process to be completed before a new term begins in October, he said. He acknowledged that he told a reporter early last month that he would decide in about 30 days, but he said with a laugh that he hoped "that wasn't being treated as a statute of limitations."

His departure will hand President Obama his second chance to leave a lasting mark on the nine-member Supreme Court. "I will surely do it while he's still president," Stevens said, who plans to leave either this year or next.

If he stays past this term, Stevens will remain on course to become the oldest and longest-serving justice in Supreme Court history. Paradoxically, he is also among the court's least-known members; in a poll taken last summer, only 1 percent of Americans could summon his name.

His departure will mark a significant shift in the workings of the politically divided court. Obama is certain to nominate someone from the left to replace Stevens, so the ideological balance would not change.

But Stevens's lack of recognition nationally stands in direct contrast to his prominence on the bench. For more than 15 years, he has served as the leader of the court's liberal wing.

His ability to find common ground with the court's justices in the middle -- Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor, who has since retired -- has led to groundbreaking decisions in favor of gay rights, restrictions on the death penalty, preservation of abortion rights and the establishment of a role for the judiciary in the nation's terrorism fight.

Stevens's departure also would mark a generational change, the removal of a link not only to the court's past but also to the country's.

Stevens was in the stands, as was Franklin D. Roosevelt, when Babe Ruth hit his "called shot" home run in the 1932 World Series. He is the only justice who was around for the start of the Great Depression or who lived through Prohibition. He cracked Japanese code during World War II.

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