AuthorGreene, Jamal
PositionBook review


John Paul Stevens's first published judicial opinion was a dissent. (1) He joined the Seventh Circuit a few days after the court issued its opinion in Groppi v. Leslie, (2) and dissented soon afterward when the court upheld that decision on rehearing. Wilbur Pell, who until Stevens joined was the only Republican among the Seventh Circuit's seven active judges, wrote both Groppi opinions. (3) Yet Stevens, brand new to the court, dissented from Pell's opinion on rehearing. (4)

There was no reason to think Father Groppi, who was arrested for leading a demonstration that interrupted the Wisconsin Assembly's work, was innocent of legislative contempt, but Stevens believed the Fourteenth Amendment insisted on certain procedural protections before a person's liberty could be denied, whether by a court or a legislature. "At the foundation of our civil liberty lies the principle which denies to government officials an exceptional position before the law and which subjects them to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen," Stevens wrote, quoting Justice Brandeis. (5) "And in the development of our liberty," he continued, "insistence upon procedural regularity has been a large factor. Respect for law will not be advanced by resort, in its enforcement, to means which shock the common man's sense of decency and fair play." (6) Stevens couldn't persuade his colleagues, but the Supreme Court eventually granted cert in Father Groppi's case and unanimously adopted Stevens's position. (7)

Biography is an imperfect predictor of a judge's character and priorities. On reading Justice Stevens's 2019 memoir, published a month after his ninety-ninth birthday and two months before his death, one is overwhelmed at once with the privilege that attended Stevens's childhood. He was born in 1920 into a family of hoteliers. His grandfather, J.W. Stevens, founded the Illinois Life Insurance Company and owned the tony La Salle Hotel in the Chicago Loop. His father, Ernest, ran the Stevens Hotel, the largest in the world when it opened in 1926, and was for a time one of Chicago's wealthiest men. (8)

But a memoir that opens to audiences with Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, summers at the vacation estate in Lakeside, Michigan, and trips to World Series games at Wrigley Field--including, famously, the one at which Babe Ruth is said (including by Stevens) to have called his home run (9)--ends with a lengthy, heartfelt dissent from the Supreme Court's refusal to permit Congress to regulate the influence of big money on elections. Stevens was no populist but he cared deeply about the little guy. He was no iconoclast but he wrote more dissents than any Justice in history. He was the only WASP on the Court he retired from, and the only Justice who wore a bowtie to work, but he was among the least wed to establishment thinking.


He doesn't say, not directly anyway. Deep introspection isn't the aim here; Stevens mostly sticks to the facts, but there are hints. The book is effectively laid out in two acts. The first quarter or so is more conventionally autobiographical, telling of Stevens's childhood and first home on Blackstone (!) Avenue, his college years at the University of Chicago, his Navy service as a codebreaker at Pearl Harbor, his law school days at Northwestern, his clerkship with Justice Rutledge, his time in practice as a successful antitrust lawyer, and his five-year stint as an appellate judge.

The most bracing passages, and perhaps the most telling, relate to the scandal that engulfed Stevens's father, and the events that followed. In 1933, the Cook County state's attorney charged Ernest Stevens, his brother, and his father with embezzling more than $1 million in connection with a loan the Stevens Hotel obtained from J.W.'s company. (10) Ernest's conviction was eventually overturned for insufficiency of evidence. (11) In the meantime, though, two terrifying incidents shattered whatever sense of security John Paul's wealth and social stature might have supplied him. First, the family chauffeur, Orson Washburne, was kidnapped at gunpoint and interrogated about the location of cash believed to be stashed in the Stevens's home. (12) Shortly thereafter, four armed men claiming to be Chicago police officers burst into the Stevens family home one evening. They ransacked the place, threatened to "mow down" the family and, before leaving, promised reprisals against John Paul and his brother if anyone ratted them out. (13)

Whether or not Ernest Stevens was guilty of any crimes, John Paul clearly believed his father had been wrongfully convicted. And whatever the identities of the men who invaded the Stevens home just after that Saturday dinner, Stevens reveals lingering suspicion that they might well have had day jobs as Chicago police officers. Much later in life, just before his appointment to the Seventh Circuit, Stevens led a corruption investigation into members of the Illinois Supreme Court. All of which is to say that Stevens's personal engagements with the criminal justice system could not have inspired unqualified confidence in individual police officers, prosecutors, and judges. Yet, his father was acquitted, and Stevens's investigation led to the resignation of two state Supreme Court Justices. There are bad guys who wield power within the system, but sometimes the good guys win.

The book's much longer second act offers a term-by-term recounting of Stevens's thirty-five-year...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT