The Washington Post

Retired Justice Stevens still issuing opinions


No one should be surprised that John Paul Stevens is still issuing opinions, a year after he retired from the Supreme Court.

At 91, without the judicial robe he wore for 41 years, Stevens gives speeches, writes book reviews, has completed a memoir of the court and regularly critiques the work of his former Supreme Court colleagues.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006. View Archive

He’s sure they don’t mind.

“Nobody’s expressed any criticism,” he said recently in his new chambers at the court, with an expansive view of the Capitol at his back.

“It seems to me it’s still a free country,” he said with a laugh. “There’s nothing unusual in me expressing disagreement with the majority. I think everybody thinks that’s all in a day’s work.”

He said the court got it wrong in deciding that members of Westboro Baptist Church had a First Amendment right to protest near the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq. He would have joined Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s lone dissent, arguing that it violated the family’s privacy.

And Stevens can’t get over a 5 to 4 decision this past spring that threw out a $14 million award to a Louisiana death row inmate freed after it was proved that prosecutorial misconduct led to his conviction.

The court’s conservative majority held that the New Orleans prosecutor’s office could not be held liable for not properly training its staff because of a single case of misconduct.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Stevens said.

Stevens said he has read all of the court’s work this past term — and he doesn’t think his absence affected the outcome of a single case.

Instead, the former leader of the court’s liberal wing praises both his replacement, Justice Elena Kagan, and President Obama’s other appointee, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for their early contributions to the court.

“I haven’t felt the court has suffered from my leaving at all, or that I would have contributed anything that they did not contribute,” Stevens said.

The court’s chief justices come in for Stevens’s mixture of blunt criticism and personal fondness in his book “Five Chiefs.” It is a critique and memoir of his association with five of the court’s chief justices. There have been only 17.

He writes about Fred Vinson, whom he met as a law clerk at the court in 1947; Earl Warren, who was on the bench in the only case Stevens argued as an advocate (he lost); and Warren Burger, William H. Rehnquist and John G. Roberts Jr., the three chief justices during his time as a justice.

Stevens makes the point in his book and in the interview that philosophical differences do not carry over into personal relationships or into his evaluations.

He is especially effusive about Roberts, with whom he disagreed frequently in the five years they served together. He criticizes some of the decisions in which Roberts was in the majority but nonetheless calls him an “excellent” chief justice and a “well prepared, fair and effective leader.”

In the book, he said he would not rank the five chiefs he knew in the historical hierarchy of the court, but asked with whom he most enjoyed working, he said, “I think just in terms with who’s the nicest guy generally, I think I might well say John Roberts. I’m just really fond of him.”

With his active workload and intense interest in the workings of the court, it might appear that Stevens felt he had retired too early. But he said he hasn’t “had any regrets at all.”

As a retired justice, he is entitled to chambers at the court and a law clerk. Unlike his fellow retirees Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter, he said he has no interest in sitting in on cases in the lower courts.

“I sort of like not having to read briefs, to tell you the truth,” he said.

So he works on projects he wants to work on and spends November through April at his condominium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Famous for his active lifestyle, Stevens said he still plays tennis, but the rules have changed.

“I’ve got a bum knee,” he said. “I used to be able to cover the court pretty effectively, but I can’t run the way I used to.” So he and the lawyer he regularly plays with have developed a new set of rules.

“He has to hit it to me, and I can hit it anywhere I want.”


A New Jersey man’s love Supreme

Information on visiting the Supreme Court

First lady at Target: Critics take aim

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
We'll have half a million voters in South Carolina. I can shake a lot of hands, but I can't shake that many.
Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking to a group of reporters about his strategy to regain support after a poor performance in the last debate
Fact Checker
Sanders’s claim that Clinton objected to meeting with ‘our enemies’
Sanders said that Clinton was critical of Obama in 2008 for suggesting meeting with Iran. In fact, Clinton and Obama differed over whether to set preconditions, not about meeting with enemies. Once in office, Obama followed the course suggested by Clinton, abandoning an earlier position as unrealistic.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.