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Stephen Keim
12 April, 2010  
The transit of Stevens

Gerald Ford thought he’d elevated a trusty conservative when he appointed John Paul Stevens to the US Supreme Court … 34 years later Stevens leaves the court as one of its more committed liberal judges … In particular, his attitude to the death penalty underwent significant revision … Stephen Keim reports


imageOn Friday (April 9) Justice John Paul Stevens announced that he would be stepping down from the United States Supreme Court at the end of its current term.

Justice Stevens has been a justice of the court for 34 years having been nominated by President Gerald Ford in 1975.

He turns 90 on April 20 and is the oldest as well as the longest serving member of the Supreme Court.

Justice Stevens’ transition from a conservative to a more liberal jurist is indicated by his changed position on capital punishment.

In 1976 he was part of the 7-2 majority in Gregg v Georgia, which conditionally restored the right of states to impose the death penalty.

However, in later cases, he often formed part of majorities that tightened that imposition or set it aside in particular cases.

In addition, in Baze v Rees, a finding that did not declare unconstitutional the trio of lethal chemicals used in executions, Justice Stevens stated that it was again time to review the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Justice Stevens is known for always writing reasons when in dissent and for writing concurring decisions more frequently than anyone else.

His opinions are always a pleasure to read for their learning, their clarity and their passion.

The passionate dissent in the recent election funding case of Citizens United v Federal Election Commission was a wonderful example of these qualities.

President Obama said that it was impossible to replace Justice Stevens’ “wisdom and experience”.

However, it will be an opportunity to shore up the liberal wing of the court with a younger person with similar judicial values.

Obama has already appointed Justice Sonia Sotomayer, a woman of Hispanic background to the court.

Although the replacement of Stevens is unlikely to change the liberal/conservative balance on the Supreme Court, with Justice Anthony Kennedy having the pivotal swing role, the replacement of Justice Stevens is already being flagged as a possible issue in November’s mid term Congressional elections.

Whoever is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate will have a big task in replacing the colour, wit and learning of the Supreme Court’s retiring old man.

Stephen Keim
Brisbane