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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks at Justice John Paul Stevens Bar Memorial


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court. Actually, I do not think that traditional prayer is necessary today. I am certain that the request I will be making at the end of these remarks will please the Court.

The Bar of the Court met today to honor the memory of John Paul Stevens, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010.

Justice Stevens was humble, curious, and generous, both as a judge and as a human being. He exemplified open-mindedness, collegiality, and integrity. He was unfailingly well-prepared, civil, and intellectually formidable on every case he heard.

He modeled the best of the judicial craft and was a proud and tireless guardian of judicial independence.

Justice Stevens was born on April 20, 1920 in Chicago. He attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools for elementary and high school, and then the University of Chicago for college

Justice Stevens graduated in 1941 and had begun work on a Master’s degree in English when his dean asked him to consider cryptographic work for the Navy. He took the suggestion to heart and was commissioned as a Naval officer.

In his distinguished Navy career, Justice Stevens helped crack codes with important consequences for the war effort. He did this through his knack for seeing angles in problems that others missed – an ability that would be recognized throughout his subsequent career.

When he left the service, Justice Stevens pursued law school at the suggestion of his brother. At Northwestern University School of Law, he became co-editor-in-chief of the law review and graduated first in his class. His outstanding performance — and a fortunate coin toss with a classmate — won him a clerkship with Justice Wiley B. Rutledge.

Upon completion of the 1947 Term, Justice Rutledge gave Stevens a photo inscribed, “To my friend and former clerk, with appreciation and affection.”  Years later, Justice Stevens made a practice of inscribing photos to his own clerks in the same way.

After his clerkship, Justice Stevens returned home to Chicago. He became a leading litigator in private practice and argued a case in this Court.

He specialized in antitrust law, a subject he also taught as an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern and at the University of Chicago.

He accepted important opportunities for public service, including serving as Associate Counsel to a House Subcommittee on the Study of Monopoly Power, and as Counsel to a Special Commission to investigate charges of corruption in the Illinois Supreme Court. He took cases pro bono, including a criminal matter in which he won reversal of his client’s murder conviction premised on a coerced confession.

In 1970, he became a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. And then, in 1975, President Gerald R. Ford appointed him to the Supreme Court of the United States.

My distinguished predecessor, Attorney General Edward Levi, called Stevens “a craftsman of the highest order,” whose opinions were “gems of perfection.” 

In 2005, former President Ford reflected on the appointment with pride, writing of his presidency: “I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination thirty years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

As a member of this Court, Justice Stevens was independent, insightful, and prolific.

His vast body of opinions touched almost every corner of federal law. It would be impossible to do justice to that remarkable body of judicial work in these brief remarks, so I will limit myself to just a few examples.

In the realm of criminal law, Justice Stevens’s landmark opinion in Apprendi v. New Jersey was the first in a line of cases that transformed the law of sentencing — a line that also included Justice Stevens’s opinions in United States v. Booker and Gall v. United States.

His opinions in INS v. St. Cyr, Rasul v. Bush, and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld protected the writ of habeas corpus as a means of testing the legality of executive detention.

His opinion in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, holding that courts must defer to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes, has charted the course of administrative law for a generation.

And in antitrust, his first love, his influential opinions in cases like NCAA v. Board of Regents and American Needle v. NFL have guided the principles governing horizontal restraints adopted by associations and joint ventures.

Justice Stevens’s time on the Court was defined not only by what he contributed to the law, but also by how he did so.

He was kind and unassuming, without any airs. He would often preface his questions from the bench with: “May I ask a question?”

He was a warm colleague both on and off the bench. The affection that his fellow Justices had for him was manifest.

He also made good on the words he inscribed on the photos he gave his law clerks: they were both his former clerks and his friends.

I first met the Justice a few years after he came on the Court. As a new clerk for Justice Brennan, I dropped by the Stevens chambers to talk with his clerks about a case. When he heard us talking in the clerks’ room, the Justice came in, plopped himself down into an easy chair, and immediately entered into the conversation.

It was clear that he loved the give-and-take of the conversation.

It was clear that this kind of discussion was central to the way he made up his mind about a case.

It was very clear that even though he was so attentive to what we thought, the final decision would be his, based on his own independent judgment.

And it was also very clear that his clerks loved being part of that process.

For a moment, I was jealous of the fact that he hired only two clerks, who would undoubtedly become closer to their Justice than the rest of us in chambers with twice that number. Then I remembered that, because they were not in the cert pool, those two clerks would be working on every cert petition filed that year.

But while he was a congenial colleague and boss, Justice Stevens was also fearless in going it alone — whether piloting small airplanes; disputing that William Shakespeare actually wrote the Shakespeare plays; rooting for the Cubs as a South Sider; writing the first drafts of his opinions; or concurring or dissenting solo when his views departed from those of other Justices.

He placed a premium on exercising independent judgment and was insistent on explaining the legal reasoning underlying that judgment.

He also believed that it was important to change your mind when you concluded that your original position, or even one of your published opinions, was wrong.

As he put it just a few years before his retirement: “Learning on the bench has been one of the most important and rewarding aspects of my own experience over the last 35 years.” 

Justice Stevens embodied the independence and commitment to judging each case on its own merits that is essential to the rule of law. When Justice Stevens retired from the Court at age 90, he had been working long after most people his age had retired. Yet, he appeared only to have become younger each year he sat on this bench. In the words of President Obama, he retired “at the top of his game.” 

Not that he really retired in any conventional sense. In the years after leaving the Court, he published three books, including “The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years.”

Although he traded tennis for ping pong, and acceded to his family’s wishes that he stop swimming in the open ocean on his own, he kept up the kind of pace that made many believe there might well be a second 94 years. In his last days, he flew to Portugal to participate in a conference. His travel companions reported that he hadn’t lost a step.

At the time of his passing in 2019, Justice Stevens had been retired from active service for nearly a decade. And yet, in the words of Justice David Souter, he remained “the soul of principle and an irreplaceable friend.”

Justice Stevens will long be remembered for his extraordinary service to our country, for his commitment to the rule of law, for his fundamental decency, and for the integrity with which he worked and lived.

Mr. Chief Justice, on behalf of the lawyers of this Nation – and in particular, the members of this Court’s Bar – I respectfully request that the resolutions presented to you in honor of John Paul Stevens be accepted by the Court, and that together with the chronicle of these proceedings, they be ordered kept for all time in the records of this Court.

Updated May 2, 2022