POTTER STEWART, who died Saturday in New Hampshire at the age of 70, was the youngest federal court judge in the country when he was appointed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Eisenhower in 1954. Twenty- seven years later, he surprised friends and colleagues by retiring from the Supreme Court at the relatively young age of 66. Five justices older than he remained on the court, but he said he wanted to leave while he was still in good health and could enjoy his grandchildren. His judicial service thus paralleled the most productive years of most lawyers rather than the later careers of many judges, and his years on the bench serve as an example to both.
Justice Stewart said that he wished to be remembered as "a good lawyer who did his best." That respect for careful analysis, thorough preparation and the ability to bring objectivity and logic to a task was always apparent in his work. As a judge, his goal was to be "objective, conscientious, diligent and (to) remember always that every person is equal before the law." These guidelines, reflected in his opinions, earned him a reputation for moderation based not on insecurity or shifting philosophy but a firm devotion to the Constitution and his own view of judicial power and responsibility. Often characterized as a conservative during the Warren years and a centrist on the Burger court, he held views that were steady and consistent. It was the court that changed.
Justice Stewart believed in the importance of precedent and the desirability of deciding cases on the narrowest of grounds. Like the good lawyer he was, he made distinctions between cases and was not impelled by a political philosophy that put him always on the left or the right side. He voted to allow states to organize prayer in public schools but against public money for parochial schools. He sided with the majority in striking down laws against abortion, but wrote the opinion upholding Congress' right to ban Medicaid payments for the procedure. An early defender of civil rights remedies, he later objected to affirmative action plans that involved racial preferences. These opinions did not demonstrate inconsistency but rather a careful consideration of what the Constitution required in specific cases.
A strong defender of the right of privacy and of a free press, he once said, "So far as the Constitution goes, the autonomous press may publish what it knows and may seek to learn what it can." He knew that the states, the three branches of the federal government and the press have separate rights and responsibilities, and he sought to protect each.
Judges, government officials and constitutional scholars are today engaged in a debate on how the court should view the Constitution. Some believe the intent of the Framers should be controlling while others call for a judiciary that places more emphasis on its own view of today's problems. Justice Stewart would not be on either side in this debate. For decades on the bench he demonstrated restraint, respect for the Constitution and a pragmatic intelligence that enabled him to contribute much. His death is a loss not only to his family and colleagues but to his profession and his country as well.