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Former Justice Stevens on the 3 worst Supreme Court decisions of his tenure

Former Justice John Paul Stevens spent 35 years on the Supreme Court, writing some of its most important decisions. At age 99, he is still writing, including a new memoir, and weighing in on prominent U.S. issues today. Judy Woodruff sat down with Justice Stevens in April to hear his thoughts on everything from President Trump to how a childhood accident shaped his future views on gun ownership.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Former Justice John Paul Stevens spent 35 years on the Supreme Court writing some of the court's most important decisions.

    Today, at 99 years old, he's still writing and weighing in on some of the country's most controversial issues.

    Judy Woodruff caught up with Justice Stevens last month. And he shared his thoughts on everything from President Trump to how a childhood accident shaped his future views on gun ownership.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, John Paul Stevens remains one of the titans of American law, owing mostly to his long Supreme Court tenure, which spanned decades.

    Even in retirement, he has stayed in the public eye, bow tie and all, a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, two previous books about the court and the Constitution published in 2011 and 2014.

    As he turns 99, the retired justice has written another, "The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years." And he is opening up, carefully, about current affairs and even the current president.

  • John Paul Stevens:

    I am not a fan of President Trump, I should say. I wouldn't try to comment on every particular issue in which we disagree, but there are plenty of them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And his effect on the country as president?

  • John Paul Stevens:

    I don't think it's been favorable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Can you elaborate?

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Well, that's not part of my responsibility as a judge, and I think I shouldn't try to get involved in the politics, as a retired judge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stevens' new book of reflection begins in Chicago with his family's hotel business and an encounter his father, Ernest Stevens, had with one infamous Chicagoan.

    There are extraordinary anecdotes in here. Your father had a meeting with Al Capone?

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Well, he said he did, and I assume he's telling me the truth.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stevens writes that his father and other hotel men in the city thought it important to persuade industry groups to hold their conventions in Chicago. His father and another hotel manager "paid a visit to Al Capone, explained how Chicago's hotel business might be affected if any conventioneers were robbed and asked for his help."

    "According to my father's account," Stevens continued, "Capone said he understood, and, in fact, there wasn't a single holdup in Chicago during the week of the convention."

    Stevens also recalls his own home being invaded in the winter of 1933 and a gun fired by an older brother, Jim, in the aftermath. Stevens wrote: "Despite threatening comments and behavior by the armed intruders, a neighbor came the closest to being a victim of a real tragedy, when Jim's shot so narrowly missed him."

    Did that have an effect later in your thinking about the judicial system?

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Well, yes, it did.

    And I have thought about that frequently, for the fact that these accidents can happen when there are too many guns around. And that has reminded me of reason to be opposed to the Second Amendment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stevens was on the high court in 2008, dissenting when Justice Antonin Scalia and other conservative colleagues voted in a landmark case to say that the Second Amendment does establish an individual right to bear arms.

  • John Paul Stevens:

    It's one of the three very, very bad cases. And it was particularly bad. There is no doubt about that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you worry that that is something that is going to stand for a long time and will continue to have repercussions in this country?

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Oh, yes, I certainly do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The other two rulings in that category that Stevens opposed at the time and laments to this day are the pivotal Bush v. Gore ruling, deciding the 2000 presidential election, and the landmark Citizens United ruling in 2010 on campaign finance during Stevens' final term.

    It's clear how strongly you feel that Citizens United was wrongly decided.

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why do you think it's had a corrosive effect on American politics?

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Just look at the amount of money.

    I can't give you the figures, but millions and millions of dollars are spent on campaigns now. And, often there's state representatives spending money provided by residents of other states. People in the district should be the ones who decide the outcome of elections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since his own departure, the court has not had to weigh in on a major Second Amendment or campaign finance case. But it has dealt several times with cases involving the death penalty and its implementation.

  • John Paul Stevens:

    My own thinking — and it took quite a while to really reach the conclusion that the death penalty does more harm than good — it's terribly expensive and really a pointless process, because it — I think it accomplishes very little that can't be accomplished with more humane punishment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, right now, the court is still divided on the issue.

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you believe, eventually, the death penalty will be done away with in this country?

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Oh, yes. I think it certainly will.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today's court retains the conservative tilt that existed throughout much of Stevens' tenure.

    And since the installation of its newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, some liberal groups have questioned whether some precedents like the Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion rights will remain.

    It looks as if the people who feel strongly anti-abortion want the court to take this up and do away with Roe v. Wade.

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Yes.

    Well, it could happen. I just don't know what's on the agenda for other justices. But it did seem to me that that wasn't a very controversial topic at the time of my appointment. Nobody asked me a single question about abortion during my hearings. Later, opposition became more organized and more effective.

    But I can't predict what's going to happen in the near future. But in the long run, it seems to me that abortion is a necessary procedure that will be recognized and will be performed lawfully.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As for his former colleagues, Stevens helped swear in the current chief justice, John Roberts, in 2005. Despite any ideological differences, Stevens still holds Roberts in high esteem.

  • John Paul Stevens:

    I trusted him implicitly, have the highest regard for him as a lawyer.

    And I must confess I was disappointed at some of his decisions after he came on the bench that were much more conservative than I expected. But, on the whole, I think he is still a very well-qualified person.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, in the end, most of Stevens' new book serves as an account of how he himself has managed and sometimes failed to shape American law.

    You have a remarkable legacy on the court. You served for 35 years. What do you believe your legacy will be?

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Well, that's difficult to figure out. But I wound like people to think I was an honest judge and a good judge. And I always tried the reach the best result in every case.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Justice John Paul Stevens, thank you very much for talking with us.

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Well, thank you. I have enjoyed it.

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