John Paul Stevens’ colleagues on the U.S. Supreme Court were accustomed to his opposition.
Stevens was one of four dissenters on Bush v. Gore, the 2000 case that led to George W. Bush’s presidency, and one of four dissenters on District of Columbia v. Heller, which upheld the right for residents to own handguns.
He wrote 11 dissents in 2010 — his final year on the bench — and wrote a partial dissent on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the decision that abolished limits on corporate and union political campaign contributions.
All told, Stevens wrote more than 1,400 opinions during his 34-year Supreme Court career. About half of them — 716 — were dissents.
His dedication to that act stemmed from an incident in his home state of Illinois, where in 1967, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Walter Schaefer wrote an unpublished dissent in People v. Isaacs.
Unpublished dissents — which were written but never made public — were common then, Stevens said, out of concern that dissents would threaten “collegiality on the court.”
Stevens thought differently.
“I made up my mind that if I did in fact disagree with the majority, I thought part of my job was to say so and explain what my differences are,” Stevens said Tuesday at the Harold Washington Library.
The retired justice spoke for about 70 minutes in a sold-out Pritzker Auditorium, covering his upbringing in Hyde Park, his education at University of Chicago and Northwestern University School of Law, his time in practice and eventually his career on the nation’s high court.
The speech was hosted by The Chicago Bar Association and moderated by Judge Ann Claire Williams of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Stevens, who turned 95 in April, had no shortage of stories and insights for a crowd that included Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans, Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo and 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William J. Bauer.
Among those stories were Stevens attending Game 3 of the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field in which Babe Ruth hit his famous “called shot” home run and his family’s hotel hosting, on separate occasions, aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
When Stevens’ family founded the Stevens Hotel in 1927 on Michigan and Balbo avenues, it was the largest in the world and included 3,000 guest rooms, a bowling alley, an ice cream factory, a movie theater and an 18-hole miniature golf course on the roof.
Two years later, his family lost its fortune when the stock market crashed. Stevens found himself on the other side of the hotel business in the 1930s when he took a summer job as a bellboy at a Wisconsin resort while in college.
Drawing out those personal insights is Williams’ goal as moderator in hopes of going beyond simply discussions about a judge’s opinions.
“What I try to do is give the personal side so that we can understand who this person is and how this person evolved,” said Williams, who added that the CBA is working on bringing Justice Elena Kagan to Chicago in 2016.
“And then you get a window into their decision-making because you see who is behind the robe.”
Stevens’ evolving views include his position on the death penalty.
In 1976, he joined the majority opinion in Gregg v. Georgia, which ruled capital punishment constitutional. In 2002, he wrote the majority opinion in Atkins v. Virginia, which held capital punishment of the mentally disabled to be unconstitutional.
In 2008, Stevens wrote a concurring opinion in Baze v. Rees, which ruled that lethal injection was constitutional because it did not inflict “unnecessary pain” on the subject.
That case, though, led Stevens to oppose the death penalty because it now violated the original spirit of capital punishment, which, he said, was to inflict pain while causing death.
“If the real reason for it is no longer permissible, you should get rid of the punishment itself,” he said.
After reading the opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., “it really struck me that this penalty really does not fit in our society anymore.”
Toward the end of the conversation, Williams shared with the crowd Stevens’ tips on “life and lawyering,” which she collected from interviews with Stevens’ clerks and daughters. Those included adopting a unique practice, valuing integrity, keeping detailed expense records, expressing appreciation for hard work and drinking at lunch when you’re having a bad day.
Stevens said he did not remember ever saying that last one, a statement that his daughter Elizabeth Sesemann — sitting in the audience along with her two sisters — disputed.
“What he said was, ‘Everybody has bad days — very, very bad days,’” Sesemann said.
“‘And some days you may feel like a drink at lunch. I don’t recommend that, but if you feel you have to have a drink at lunch, drink vodka because it doesn’t leave a scent on your breath.’”
This line brought the house down with laughter and applause rippling around the room. It was the afternoon’s final dissent.