Stevens and the Legacy of a Not-So-Liberal Lion

There has been much speculation about who Obama will pick to replace retiring Justice, John Paul Stevens. Many people are looking at the political aspects of the debate. Will Obama pick a liberal, a moderate, a vegetarian? Conventional thinking says replace a liberal with a liberal.

The interesting point to consider about this view is the idea of Justice Stevens as the “liberal lion” of the Court. While this may seem commonplace, it hasn’t always been that way and it still doesn’t completely fit.

Justice Stevens joined the Supreme Court during the Ford Administration. He replaced Justice William O. Douglas, the author of the majority opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, the case that guaranteed “a right to privacy.” Those were pretty big shoes to fill.

Stevens was considered a moderate conservative. With Justice Brennan and Thurgood Marshall as his colleagues, no one mistook him for a liberal.

Justice William Brennan has been called the “total judge.” Even Justice Scalia named Brennan the most influential judge of the 20th century. Brennan was truly liberal, though also persuasive and able to form coalitions on the Court.

At the beginning of his Supreme Court career, Justice Stevens opposed Justice Brennan on some major liberal issues, including the death penalty. Later on, Justice Stevens would disagree with Brennan on the case of Texas v. Johnson, in which Brennan and the majority held that flag burning was protected speech under the First Amendment.

Since then, there has been a gradual shift in Justice Stevens’ positions from moderate to left-leaning during the ‘80s. He would dissent in the notable case of Bowers v. Hardwick, which stated that laws against private homosexual acts between consenting adults were constitutional.

So how are we to assess Justice Stevens as a liberal lion-ness?

It would be easy to simply say that since Justice Stevens is further to the left than he was at the start of his career, he should thus be remembered as a liberal justice. To do so would be to ignore the fact that his early decisions count just as much as his later ones.

There is also another confounding variable in our assessment of Justice Stevens: the Court’s rightward movement. While it may seem that the present liberal bloc of justices are in fact liberal, many consider them simply moderates who look liberal when compared to their textualist and strict constructionist colleagues.

Even if one ignores the changing of the Court, Justice Stevens is no William Brennan or William O. Douglas. Justice Stevens is simply Justice Stevens, a man who believes in what he says and is willing to evolve his opinions over time.

In politics, changing your opinion is seen as vice. For a judge on the highest court, change is definitely refreshing.

Jaye Anthony Estrada is a fourth-year biological sciences and political science double-major. He can be reached at estradaj@uci.edu.