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Academic highlight: A tribute to Justice Stevens

Northwestern University Law Review has recently published a symposium issue celebrating the life and work of Justice John Paul Stevens.  Nearly sixty-five years after his graduation from that law school,  legal scholars, journalists, and some of Justice Stevens’s former law clerks gathered at Northwestern to discuss his jurisprudence on executive power, administrative law, and the First Amendment, among other subjects.  Sprinkled throughout are colorful anecdotes from his life on and off the bench.  Although it is impossible to sum up Justice Stevens’s legacy in a single volume of a law review, this symposium paints of vivid picture of Justice Stevens’s life and work.

Although I cannot summarize all fifteen symposium articles in this post, I’ve described a few of the articles below.

Thomas Merrill’s contribution is devoted to Chevron U.S.A. Inc.  v. NRDC – arguably Justice Stevens’s “most famous decision.”  Chevron’s two-step review of agency decision making has been interpreted as an institutional choice model of decision making, in which courts defer to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes on the ground that agencies are better situated than courts to make such calls.  But Merrill makes a convincing case that Justice Stevens never intended Chevron to alter the administrative law landscape.  He believes that Chevron exemplifies Justice Stevens’s “equilibrium-preserving” approach to agency decision making, in which Justice Stevens thought the Court should “nudge” agencies away from unreasonable choices.  In short, Chevron is a prime example of the limited control a Justice has over his own legacy.

Although most of the symposium is focused on Justice Stevens’s service on the Supreme Court,  Stefanie Lindquist analyzed his voting behavior while serving as a judge on the Seventh Circuit from 1970 to 1975.  During this “prequel” to his thirty-five years on the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Stevens did not vote in any ideologically consistent manner, but rather “was extremely independent in his voting behavior.”  She concludes that he was an “iconoclastic and unpredictable” judge – just as he continued to be on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dawn Johnsen discussed Justice Stevens’s role in the string of post-9/11 cases brought by Guantanamo Bay detainees, which she uses to evaluate the relationship between the courts and the executive on matters of foreign affairs.  Johnsen concludes that “Justice Stevens led the Court in checking executive excesses” following the attacks on September 11, 2001, and she believes his opinions “will stand as powerful, historic examples of the United States’ commitment to the rule of law and the judiciary’s role in safeguarding it.”  She also notes that the Court has denied over a dozen certiorari petitions from those who remained detained at Guantanamo over the last few years, and she speculates that the Court’s recent silence on these matters is in part due to Justice Stevens’s departure from the bench.

Finally, the symposium includes some remembrances of the Justice from former clerks, who fondly recall their chats with the Justice from topics ranging from football to apple pie to Shakespeare.  According to Kathryn Watts, the Justice had a “sense of balance in life,” which made him a great role model for those who clerked for him.

Recommended Citation: Amanda Frost, Academic highlight: A tribute to Justice Stevens, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 6, 2012, 1:20 PM),