It’s an honor to stand here in this Great Hall and eulogize a great man, Justice John Paul Stevens.
I have two tasks today. First, I’ve been asked to speak as a representative of the clerks from his final years on the bench. And, second, I’ve been asked to reflect on the principle – a principle that is stitched into the Justice’s life and career in the law – that, in this country, the law is supreme and that no one is above it.
Let’s start with the light stuff. I clerked for the Justice in his second to last year on the Court. By that point, he had seen the law from every conceivable angle. As a kid in Chicago, he felt the jagged edge of the law when his father was wrongfully convicted of embezzlement. An experience that nearly devastated his family. He witnessed the law’s power to redeem when that same conviction was overturned on appeal. He fought for our laws in the Pacific Theater in World War II. He hung a shingle and practiced the law. He helped enforce the laws when he investigated corruption in the Illinois Supreme Court. And he shaped the law as a judge and as a Justice for decades.
So by the time we started our clerkship, Justice Stevens had seen it all. Or so it seemed. Now this was 2008. The days of Hope and Change. A young lawyer from Chicago was just elected president. And a future president was elected vice president. One day the Justice walked into the clerk’s office and stood in the doorway. And it became clear that he wasn’t there to talk about a case, or a legal issue that was on his mind. No, he started to tell us about something he had never done. He told us that, by tradition, the Chief Justice swears in the new president. But neither law nor custom instructs who swears in the new Vice President. And he told us that, in all his years on the Supreme Court, he had never been asked to swear in the Vice President. And then he turned and went right back to his office.
We didn’t know what to do with that. Was it just an off-hand remark? Was it a clue or a breadcrumb that we were supposed to pick up and do something with? We didn’t know. But we the clerks decided, all on our own, that it was time for a little “off-the-books” activity – a scheme to get Joe Biden to ask Justice Stevens to swear him in. And, to be clear, none of us knew Joe Biden. Now, if you think I am about to describe how the conspiracy worked and who was in it, you would be wrong – or quite wrong – as Justice Stevens would have put it. Let’s just say that a few weeks later, the phone rang in chambers. Janice answered it. We were in the other room and could hear. Oh, it was Joe Biden? Oh, he wants to speak with Justice Stevens? We waited. A few minutes later, Justice Stevens walked back into the clerk’s office, stood in the doorway, and with a smile on his face, he told us that, wouldn’t you know, Joe Biden had just called him and asked him to swear him in as the Vice President of the United States. And then he left us. The Justice never asked us whether we had anything to do with that, and if he had, we obviously, obviously would have pled the Fifth.
One more story. Later in our clerkship, the Justice gathered the law clerks. It was around the time when ordinarily he would begin to hire a new batch of law clerks. The justice began to reflect on our term and how he felt it was going. And how he felt he was doing. He told us that unlike prior years, he wasn’t planning to hire his full complement of 4 clerks and instead he wanted to hire just one. It was time. Even though we knew we were witnessing a significant moment in history, everything about it was classic Justice Stevens. Low key, plain spoken, and gentle. I don’t think he knew any other way, even when closing the final chapter in his service to this nation — a body of service that consistently sought to preserve and protect the rule of law.
The rule of law and the supremacy of the law were uncontested for much of the justice’s life. They were just assumed to be true. They animated so much of his personal story, his rise to the Court, and his work on the Court. And even though the Justice passed away less than 3 years ago, you cannot possibly measure the distance between then and now in years. So much has happened. So much is now up for debate. And so much of that debate is coarse. And cheap. For the Justice, January 6th was just a date. George Floyd was just a name. Another land war in Europe was just inconceivable. And on and on and on. I think we can all agree that John Paul Stevens was a man for all seasons. But I find myself wondering what he would make of this season.
Our nation stands on troubled soil today. That is a fact. And the Justice did not believe in airbrushing facts. So let’s not do that. I think we all know that before Justice Stevens passed, there was an urgency in his writings – in his dissents in his final years on the bench and in some of the works he authored in retirement. It was not an abandonment of hope, but instead a questioning of the durability of certain principles he thought were fundamental and true.
I’m sure these past few years would have upset him. But, still, I do not think he would have given up hope. Nor should we. Because his life is all the testimony we need to know that great things can grow from troubled soil.
This was a man from Chicago, a place best known for its Cubs and its corruption. This was a man whose family endured injustice and the Great Depression. This was a man who went to war to defend our democracy. And out of all of that emerged a man who was picked for the bench because of his fierce integrity and independence. A man who became a Justice after Watergate because of his unimpeachable character. Corruption. Injustice. Depression. War. Watergate. These are not small things. Or easy things. Or happy things. But they are the soil from which he grew. They help explain him. And how we, as a nation, got him.
His personal story also explains his belief – a belief that ran bone deep – that the law is supreme and applies to all. The powerful and the powerless. Rich and poor. Friend and foe.
Because of him, a president, despite his high office, is not immune from suit. And it was that same unshakeable belief in the supremacy of the law – and that no one is above it – that led him to dislike official immunity of all stripes, including the most notorious of them all, state sovereign immunity, a doctrine he described as the “vainest of all legal fictions.” He was firm in his view that some English common law principles didn’t make the trip across the Atlantic.
That’s how he viewed the world as a justice. But it’s also how he lived his life. Gentle and kind to all, humble and unassuming with all. To borrow from Kipling, he walked with kings and queens but never lost his common touch. This was a great man, who was also a good man.
Talking about him makes me miss him even more. And miss the days when we had him. And even though we cannot ask him how he would make sense of these days, and these times, I am certain that if he were here, he would do what he often did when we clerked for him, and that is to first ask us what we think. And he would listen with patience. Because he believed in us. And was proud of us. The Justice is gone and, yes, the times have changed, but the sturdy, stately, beautiful legacy he built is still here. In this room. In his granddaughter Hannah. In us. In the life he breathed into the law for a nation he loved.
And I believe Justice Stevens would expect us, the keepers of his legacy, to forge ahead, to not lose faith, and to summon our better angels.
John Paul Stevens is, and always will be, one of those angels.