Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens spent much of his 35 years on the court disagreeing with the majority, but he's bullish about the institution.
At a talk Monday at Princeton University, his biggest applause line was for his shortest answer. The question: Are you optimistic about the future of the court and the Constitution?
His answer: "Yes."
The 91-year-old retired justice had a public conversation with Princeton Provost Christopher Eisgruber, who served as a clerk for him in the 1989-1990 court session.
His talk came a week after the publication of his book "Five Chiefs," about the three chief justices he served under and the two others he got to know earlier in his legal career as a clerk and a lawyer.
Stevens, famous for his bow ties, donned one in Princeton black and orange for the occasion. During a tenure that was the third-longest in court history, he also became famous for disagreeing with the court's majority. Stevens was appointed by Republican President Gerald Ford, and by the time he left last year, he was perhaps the most reliably liberal member of the court. About half his 1,400 opinions were dissents
For some Princeton students, that made him a hero. One woman wore a T-shirt that said, "I (heart) JPS."
Stevens has regrets about upholding a Texas capital punishment law and wishes the court would change positions on sovereign immunity and allow lawsuits against the government.
Yet he's happy with the way the court works.
He appeared a bit taken aback when one student asked him if the court should have a way to enforce its own rulings. "It's true that the court has to rely on the executive branch," he said. "But I don't think that's ever been a problem."
He also that by the time he joined the court in 1975, it was a congenial place _ something he said wasn't the case when he was a clerk there himself in 1947.
"It's a very nice place to work," he said. "Despite the fact that opinions frequently contain very strong language. There's never been a time when I was there that I didn't feel I could talk to a person who was on the other side of the issue."
He also scoffed at the idea that justices have conflicts that influence their rulings. Some critics on the left say Justice Clarence Thomas should recuse himself from more cases because of his wife's work in a tea party organization.
"I would say that I wouldn't think there's any possibility that any of the activities of Mrs. Thomas have had any impact on the analysis of Judge Thomas," Stevens said. "He has definite views; he's been consistent over the years."
He said he believes the current justices are all well qualified for their positions, but he says he does see the point of critics frustrated that all nine attended Harvard or Yale, eight had previously been judges and most had spent their careers in the Northeast, between Washington and Boston.
"As a general matter, I do wish there would be a little more diversity on the court," he said. "After all, I'm a member of a religious minority. There are no more WASPs on the court."
Eisgruber clarified: Protestants.
Stevens said his lasting claim to fame might not have to do with his time on the court.
The Chicago native was 12 years old when he attended the 1932 World Series game in Chicago in which New York Yankees great Babe Ruth supposedly called his shot before he hit a home run.
"Yes, he did call his shot," Stevens said. "That is an event in my life that will preserve me for posterity."
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