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July 16, 1969: Judicial launch

Kenneth A. Manaster is Professor of Law, Emeritus at Santa Clara University and senior counsel at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. He was associate counsel on the 1969 Special Commission of the Illinois Supreme Court with John Paul Stevens, who served as chief counsel. Manaster is the author of “Illinois Justice:  The Scandal of 1969 and the Rise of John Paul Stevens” (University of Chicago Press, 2001) and an executive producer of “Unexpected Justice:  The Rise of John Paul Stevens” (2015).

In the morning of July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 rocket was launched to the moon. Millions of Americans watched the launch on television. Chicago attorney John Paul Stevens did not. The launch was broadcast there about 8:30 a.m. John’s inattention to the launch was not because he was asleep or uninterested. He had another commitment to meet. He had been up since 4 a.m., hard at work preparing to continue his cross-examination of a critical and daunting witness — the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court — in the investigative proceeding that turned out to be the catalyst for John’s elevation to the federal bench one year later.

In the evening of July 16, 2019, John passed away. His preparation as a litigator 50 years earlier to the day exemplified his extraordinary and lifelong work ethic, stamina and dedication to his profession. The incident also highlighted his humility and compassion. As chief counsel — pro bono — to a blue-ribbon investigating commission, John had questioned the chief justice on the witness stand for an hour and a half the night before, and his work had gone into late hours. Nevertheless, he realized that he had not questioned as fully as needed, in part because the witness’ difficulty with the evidence genuinely evoked sympathy. John did intensive, pre-dawn homework to make sure he was ready to complete his task, respectfully yet as effectively as possible, when the witness was back on the stand a few hours later.

In July of 2015, John was present at a small gathering in Chicago for the premiere of the PBS documentary film “Unexpected Justice: The Rise of John Paul Stevens.” After viewing the film, which recounts his courageous work in the 1969 case and its importance in launching his judicial career, he spoke to the gathering to add one bit of further information. With his usual humility, he wanted to make sure everyone knew that he had not been the first choice for the prominent role he played in that investigation. He was the second choice, for a rather ironic reason.

As is widely known, John was always a Cubs fan. Another Chicago lawyer already had been seriously considered for the chief counsel position. That lawyer, however, had represented a group that had sued to force the Cubs to install lights at Wrigley Field to allow night games to be played. This bothered one member of the blue-ribbon commission, and he vetoed the selection. John was the next choice, and so the judicial career of this Cubs fan came to be. John never forgot the fortuitous circumstances that brought him into the public eye that summer.

Amidst the widespread expressions of gratitude for all that John Paul Stevens gave to the nation, and for the events and choices that led to his ascension to the Supreme Court, it may be fitting to note that the darkness of Wrigley Field helped to light the way for this great and humble man’s treasured service.

Recommended Citation: Kenneth Manaster, July 16, 1969: Judicial launch, SCOTUSblog (Jul. 19, 2019, 11:19 AM),