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The importance of Stevens’ good manners

Below are Georgetown law professor Pamela Harris‘ reflections for our thirty-day series on John Paul Stevens. Harris was a clerk for Justice Stevens during the 1992 Supreme Court Term, and is now director of Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute.

When I think of Justice Stevens, what I think of first is his manners.  Before I clerked for Justice Stevens, I was a skeptic when it came to formal, old-school manners; I thought they were off-putting, at best, and at worst, used to exclude people (like me) who had not grown up knowing which fork to use for the salad course.  But from the moment I met the Justice – as a lowly and very nervous law-clerk applicant – I learned that formal manners, done right, are about something entirely different:  putting people at ease, and making them feel respected, valued, and welcomed.

For the public, Justice Stevens’ manners are perhaps most evident at oral argument.  Since the Justice announced his retirement, many lawyers already have commented fondly on the Justice’s habit of prefacing his remarks with a request:  “May I ask you a question?”  And what follows is indeed a question—an exceptionally hard question, usually, but an actual question, in search of an actual response, so that the advocate becomes a meaningful part of the process rather than a foil for a Justice’s rhetorical gambit.  In substance as well as form, Justice Stevens’ style of questioning accords real respect to the lawyers who appear before him, treating them as valued participants with something important to offer.  No wonder that so many of them speak so highly of the Justice.

As anyone who knows Justice Stevens can attest, those same manners extend well beyond the bench, to every aspect of the Justice’s relationships with the people around him.  If there has ever been an episode in which Justice Stevens has spoken disrespectfully to or about a colleague, then it has been exceptionally well-hidden; in my experience, even in the face of vehement disagreements, Justice Stevens talked about his fellow Justices only with affection and the utmost respect.  It never surprised me that Justice Stevens would emerge as an especially effective coalition-builder on the Court.  I am certain that no instrumental calculation ever informed Justice Stevens’ manners.  But that kind of deep courtesy cannot help but bring returns, in the form of willing listeners and mutual respect.

As I learned early, of course, the Justice’s unfailing politeness extends beyond his peers to his law clerks, just as it extends to other Court employees, to the lawyers who argue before the Court – and to anyone else who might be made uncomfortable by the Justice’s greater stature or power.  For me, this was the real revelation:  that formal manners can be used to bridge, not to reinforce, a status gap.  For Justice Stevens, good manners are a way of insisting that he is no more important than anyone else, and that everyone, regardless of status, is entitled to the same thoughtful regard.  Indeed, I sometimes wonder if the very formality of Justice Stevens’ manners is a product of this sensitivity to status and hierarchy.  Informality is all well and good – if the person with whom you are dealing is free to respond in kind.  But if you are, say, a Supreme Court Justice dealing with a law clerk who is unlikely ever to feel free to dispense with the formalities, then perhaps equal regard means returning the favor with formality of your own.

In recent weeks, some commentators, most notably Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West, have lauded Justice Stevens’ remarkable empathy, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes that allows the Justice – a white, Protestant man of comfortable means – to understand, for instance, how a thirteen-year-old girl might experience a strip-search by school officials, or the anxiety that an African-American teenager might bring to an encounter with the police, or the message that a non-Christian might see in a government-sponsored Christian display.  I think it is no accident that the exceedingly well-mannered Justice Stevens is also the Court’s most empathetic Justice.  Good manners are hard work, and one of the things they require is constant cultivation of the ability to understand how other people feel.  That is the whole trick of putting people at ease:  imagining how the situation feels to them.  People with manners as good as Justice Stevens’, that is, have trained themselves already to see the world through others’ eyes.

In the years since leaving Justice Stevens’ chambers, I have had relatively few opportunities to experience the Justice’s lovely manners first-hand.  Happily, though, I regularly see them reflected in the pages of the United States Reports.  If, as foremost etiquette expert Emily Post instructs, manners are an integral part of a person, then it should come as no surprise that Justice Stevens’ opinions are informed by precisely the same values that animate his manners:  a commitment to treating people with dignity and equal regard; a visceral distaste for anything that might seem – or feel – like an abuse of authority; and the generous conviction that status should define neither our relationships nor the measure of our potential.