Stewart, Potter J. (1915–1985)

Author:Monroe E. Price

Page 2541

When DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER nominated Potter Stewart to the United States Supreme Court, the President was recognizing the perfect embodiment of Midwest Republican civic virtues. Born in Cincinnati, Stewart was the son of a popular reformist and Republican mayor who was later appointed to the Ohio Supreme Court. Stewart went from Cincinnati to Yale College where he was a class leader, then to Harvard for graduate study, and then back to Yale Law School. He returned to Cincinnati, after service in the Navy and on Wall Street to practice law and engage in civic affairs. In 1954, at the age of thirty-nine, he was named to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In October 1958, as a recess appointment, Stewart became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Stewart's tenure on the Court?more than twenty-three years?was atypically long. Only eighteen Justices have served a longer term. Yet Stewart did not seek to place a sharp imprint on the work of the Court, an imprint of the sort Justice HUGO L. BLACK or Justice FELIX FRANK-FURTER had brought to their work. Nor did he seek to build a constituency within the Court or outside it. During two periods, at the outset of his tenure and shortly after the transition to the BURGER COURT, Stewart's vote was of great significance in determining the outcome of the Court's work. Because he was not a member of a dominant and consistent majority, it would not be the case, under the customs of the Court, that the most significant cases of the quarter-century were his to write.

Stewart was guided in his decisions and his actions as a judge by a sense of decency and proportion. He believed in a nation in which order, partially derived from privately inculcated values, offered the opportunity for advancement, creativity, and freedom. His sense of propriety led him to decline the possibility of becoming Chief Justice, according to then-President RICHARD M. NIXON, because Stewart thought it inappropriate for a sitting Justice to aspire to a presidential elevation. Even his resignation was characteristic. Stewart resigned not out of illness, nor out of ambition, nor for alternative appointment, but merely because he felt that limited service was correct.

These themes of propriety, of respect for structure and rules, permeate the jurisprudence of Justice Stewart. He was a firm adherent to the principles of STARE DECISIS, even when its application led to a result varying from his own previously expressed view. In a 1974 DISSENTING OPINION he wrote: "A basic change in the law upon a ground no firmer than a change in our membership invites the popular misconception that this institution is little different from the two political branches of the...

To continue reading