The legacy of Justice John Paul Stevens

Saturday, April 10, 2010; A16

THE RUMORS have been swirling for months, but Justice John Paul Stevens's retirement announcement Friday drives home the reality that come October, for the first time in some 35 years, he will not emerge through the velvet curtains to take his place on the Supreme Court dais. It is a natural and inevitable evolution: the soon-to-be 90-year-old justice stepping aside, paving the way for a young president to anoint a new legal luminary to tackle the great questions of the day. It is a moment rich with possibilities but also one that warrants contemplation of the life of a man who for decades wielded enormous power with grace and dignity.

Born in 1920 to a wealthy Chicago family, Justice Stevens saw his family's fortune decimated by the Great Depression, and he viscerally experienced the power of the government as his father was charged with, convicted of and later cleared of embezzlement. He served his country in World War II as a code breaker, and, later, after attending law school with the help of the G.I. Bill, he donned a different uniform and took up work as a judge and justice.

He served under seven presidents and three chief justices, along the way melding passion and intellect with a gentlemanly approach most associated with generations gone by. Even in his later years on the bench, his passion was in full and civil display, as he decried the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics and struck down the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally retarded.

His voice was consistently raised on behalf of those vulnerable to government excesses, especially those accused of or convicted of crimes. His greatest legal legacy may stem from post-Sept. 11, 2001, cases involving detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and their constitutional right to challenge their detentions in court. Even with the damage of the attacks still fresh and the lust for retribution still high, Justice Stevens played a critical role in rounding up the necessary majority to ensure that even these disfavored prisoners were protected against the capriciousness of government.

It is doubtful that President Obama could choose a replacement who could immediately play this type of role; winning the confidence of colleagues often takes time. But the president should bear this ability in mind when winnowing his choices. The court, like the country itself, has too often been deeply divided along ideological or partisan lines. A nominee with Justice Stevens's keen intellect, integrity, strong work ethic and collegiality would serve the court and the country well.

But first the president must choose, and the Senate must advise and consent. Some senators will inevitably find fault with Mr. Obama's selection; we hope the disagreements focus on fact and substance and steer clear of the politics of personal destruction that have infected too many confirmation battles of the recent past. There would be no greater tribute to the man who held the seat for almost four decades.

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