By MARK HARTSELL
John Paul Stevens, one of the longest-tenured justices in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, was honored at the Library of Congress this week for his exceptional public service and dedication to the legal profession.
The Friends of the Law Library of Congress, a nonprofit group created to encourage awareness of and provide support for the Law Library, presented the former associate justice with the 2011 Wickersham Award on June 13 in a ceremony in the Jefferson Building.
“Today’s event honors a remarkable American, Justice John Paul Stevens, who contributed so much to our nation’s great body of law,” Law Librarian of Congress Roberta I. Shaffer wrote. “He can be assured that through the efforts of the Library of Congress, his intellectual and creative contributions to our social values will be preserved and accessible for years to come.”
Stevens was nominated by President Gerald R. Ford in 1975 to replace Justice William O. Douglas on the Supreme Court. He served from December of that year until his retirement in June 2010.
The award Stevens received is named for George Wickersham, a former U.S. attorney general and co-founder of the American Law Institute who in 1932 helped found Friends of the Law Library. The award is presented annually to an individual who exemplifies exceptional public service and dedication to the legal profession.
Following the presentation of the award, Justice Stevens took the stage for an interview conducted by Gwen Ifill, managing editor of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for “PBS NewsHour.”
Sitting across from each other, Stevens and Ifill engaged in a conversation that ranged from landmark cases that landed before the Supreme Court during his tenure to his relationships with other justices to his tennis game.
(Finding that a bad knee kept him from covering the tennis court well, the 91-year-old Stevens hit on a solution. “I solved it in a way that’s very unique,” he said. “I have a very good friend who’s my opponent. One of our unwritten rules is, he hits it to me.”)
Stevens criticized one of the Supreme Court’s most controversial decisions of recent years, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In that case, the court last year held by a 5-4 majority that the government cannot ban political spending by corporations during candidate elections.
“I do think the decision was quite wrong,” Stevens said. “And I think it’s quite wrong to assume that money is exactly the same as speech itself. There’s a vast difference between rules that dictate what a person can say in a political argument and rules that determine how money can be spent in debating issues.”
Stevens declined to address Bush v. Gore, the decision that, in effect, resolved the 2000 presidential election in favor of George W. Bush. “It was an unusual case,” he said.
Stevens expressed few regrets about votes he’s cast over the years—save one. “I’ve only been able to identify one case that I voted on … that I think I would vote differently today,” he said, referring to a 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia in which he co-authored the majority opinion that held the death penalty to be constitutional.
Asked about his relationships with the other justices, Stevens recalled a story about Thurgood Marshall, who served as an associate justice for 24 years.
Stevens, then a law clerk, saw an interview in which Marshall said the justices all got along well personally, despite their professional differences.
Stevens was skeptical. Marshall was only being polite in public, he thought. Then, years later, Stevens joined the court himself.
“I found out it was true,” he said. “In their personal relations, the justices get along beautifully. They are, in fact, good friends, and I still feel that every member of the court that is there now I consider a friend.”
There are, he said, differences on the merits of cases about which they feel strongly, but they don’t affect the ability of the court to function.
“One of the great things about that institution is that they really are able to work together in a cordial and honest way without having the distraction of personal animosity,” he said.
The nearly 35 years Stevens spent on the Supreme Court made him the third-longest-serving justice in the court’s history.
Asked the secret to that long success, Stevens looked toward his wife, Maryan Mulholland Simon, in the audience and said, to laughter, “The most important key to my survival is the advice I’d give to everybody in the room: Marry a beautiful dietitian.”
Gwen Ifill’s private interview with Justice Stevens at the Library of Congress later that day is accessible on the PBS website www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/law/jan-june11/justicestevens_06-13.html.
The Friends of the Law Library also honored William C. Burton, a partner in Sagat Burton in New York and the founder and chairman of the Burton Awards for Legal Achievement. Burton is the author of “Burton’s Legal Thesaurus,” a reference work that serves as a foundational text for researchers. Burton received the inaugural Blackstone Award, named for English jurist Sir William Blackstone, for his significant contributions to advancing the mission and activities of the Law Library.
Mark Hartsell is editor of the Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.