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Looking Back on Stevens’ 34 Years on the Supreme Court

In almost 35 years on the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens has handed down, and dissented from, some of the biggest legal decisions of the last generation.

Stevens began his long tenure as one of the court’s moderates, he has become the leading liberal voice as conservative nominees have moved the bench to the right.

Here are some highlights from that career:

Stevens’ confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee opened on Dec. 9, 1975, with a long exchange between the judge and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., about the difference between Stevens’ past role on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and his future on the nations highest court:

I just think I have to recognize the fact that, by virtue of the flow of cases through the court of appeals, as compared with the flow in the U.S. Supreme Court, that there is a much larger percentage of the caseload in the court of appeals where the result really, is quite clear because there is a body of precedent, or statutory directives, that we must follow, whereas in the selection process in the granting of certiorari as a discretionary matter, the Supreme Court takes an unusually difficult group of cases, very often presenting open questions as to which the answer is not often as clear as it is in the court of appeals. It is just that the case makeup is somewhat different, and the responsibility I have to recognize is such.

In 1997, the court struck down the Communications Decency Act, a law aimed at preventing children from reaching “offensive” material online, especially porn. The court found the law too broad in its effort to rein in explicit material. Stevens wrote for the majority:

The breadth of the CDA’s coverage is wholly unprecedented. … [T]he scope of the CDA is not limited to commercial speech or commercial entities. Its open ended prohibitions embrace all nonprofit entities and individuals posting indecent messages or displaying them on their own computers in the presence of minors. The general, undefined terms “indecent” and “patently offensive” cover large amounts of non-pornographic material with serious educational or other value. Moreover, the “community standards” criterion as applied to the Internet means that any communication available to a nation wide audience will be judged by the standards of the community most likely to be offended by the message.

Stevens became a dissenter in his later years on the court as its conservative wing grew. A recent First Amendment case, Citizens United v. FEC, overturned restrictions on corporate spending in elections. Writing for the minority, Stevens blasted the court for making “a dramatic break from our past,” and for treating corporations essentially as people:

In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant.Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure,and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.

Here are a few other notable cases. And NPR has a case round up here.

March 4, 2009: Wyeth v. Levine

In a severe blow to the drug industry, the Supreme Court rejected on Wednesday limits to lawsuits against drug makers. More

April 2, 2007: Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency

A ruling on environmental law and the regulation of greenhouse gases.

June 29, 2006: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

The Supreme Court rules that the Bush administration’s policy of trying terror suspects before military tribunals is illegal, saying it violated U.S. law and the Geneva Convention. More

December 12, 2000: Bush v. Gore

Stevens’ led dissenters in the 5-4 decision that ended the vote recount in Florida and handed George W. Bush the presidency.

May 22, 1995: U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton

The court rejected an Arkansas law that imposed term limits on members of Congress from that state. Stevens wrote for the majority.

For longer perspectives on Stevens’ tenure on the court, check out C-SPAN’s recent documentary on the Roberts Court, and WNET’s look back at the role of the court in American history.