Justice John Paul Stevens, thought of as one of the left-leaning members of the U.S. Supreme Court, on Friday announced his retirement from the highest judicial body in the country. His farewell to the court is not a surprise and had been speculated about since late 2009 when he hired fewer clerks than he had historically, a move many took as a signal of his impending retirement.
President Richard Nixon appointed Justice Stevens to the U.S. Seventeenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1970 and President Gerald Ford nominated him for the Supreme Court in 1975. His record of service is distinguished.
To some it might seem surprising it was two different Republican presidents who appointed Justice Stevens to his posts given his liberal opinions. But many viewed him, at least at the time of the appointments, as a more conservative adjudicator. Time has demonstrated something different.
As Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute wrote on Cato’s blog, “Justice Stevens ‘grew’ from his country-club Republican roots to becoming the Court’s liberal lion” and his jurisprudential legacy is marred with an affinity for government action often at the expense of personal liberty.
Justice Stevens, through a litany of his opinions, has been more content with judicial activism based on political convictions rather than following a strict constitutional approach on the Court.
In his majority opinion in Kelo v. New London, Justice Stevens leveled a blow to property rights holding that government could assert eminent domain to transfer private property from one private owner to another private owner in the interest of economic development for the community. He dissented in D.C. v. Heller, a landmark Second Amendment case that protected private gun ownership in federal enclaves. And most recently he offered the Court’s minority dissenting opinion on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which permitted direct corporate spending in elections.
Aside from reliving Justice Stevens’ record on the court, his departure is also a sad reminder that the court is more political than the founders intended it to be. From the court-packing days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to today, when Court justices seem to retire when ideological bedfellows occupy the White House, the high court is becoming more a political body rather than the last bastion for defense of the Constitution.
Although many of Justice Stevens’ decisions have been questionable to the liberty-leaning critic, his replacement given the evident ideological thrust of the Obama Administration could be far more left leaning.