Stevens rejects the proposition that the open phrases of the Constitution have specific meanings fixed in 1787. When the Court changed its previous view and held that execution of anyone under eighteen was an unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment, he said: “That our understanding of the Constitution does change from time to time has been settled since John Marshall breathed life into its text.”
The authors of John Paul Stevens: An Independent Life
are not Supreme Court specialists like Biskupic, who is a longtime
reporter at the Court. Bill Barnhart was a columnist and editor for the
Chicago Tribune for nearly thirty years; Gene Schlickman is a
retired lawyer who served eight terms in the Illinois legislature. They
have filled out their knowledge of the Supreme Court with diligent
research and interviews. But their special contribution is the light
they shine on Stevens’s years before he went on the Court.
One consistent theme in Stevens’s judicial life has been resistance to concentrated power. He wrote for the Court in 1998 when it struck down the line-item veto, which had effectively transferred power from Congress to the executive. And he wrote for the majority in 2004 in Rasul v. Bush, rejecting the Bush administration’s claim that it could detain prisoners at Guantánamo indefinitely, without judicial review by means of petitions for habeas corpus. The issues in the two cases were very different. The fear of power was the same—and the same fear that motivated many of the delegates at the Convention of 1787.
Barnhart and Schlickman rely
too much on citations of law review articles and other individual
comments. But they also did a lot of their own interviewing and
research, and they have produced an intriguing look at a judge little
known to the public but crucial to our constitutional structure.
In December 2010, The New York Review of Books
was the first venue for Justice John Paul
Stevens to express himself in retirement on vital issues of our time. His topic was the death penalty. Click here for his article.