The Supreme Court’s evolving problem

Ian Sams

On Friday, John Paul Stevens, the senior associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, announced his retirement.

When speaking about Stevens’ retirement and announcing his intentions for nominating the justice’s replacement, President Obama said he wanted to pick a nominee who had an “independent mind, a record of excellence and integrity, a fierce dedication to the rule of law and a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.”

This time, there was no mention of the words “empathy” or “living constitution.” This was a toned-down Obama, the “no-drama Obama” of the 2008 campaign. He and his staff meticulously avoided offering Senate Republicans fodder to deem “troubling” or “concerning.” In all, the president showed that he plans to carefully tiptoe around controversy during this election-year court battle.

John Paul Stevens, many might say, was born to be a Supreme Court justice. The heir of a prominent Chicago family, Stevens attended the University of Chicago, followed by Northwestern University School of Law. To this day, he holds the record for the highest GPA in the history of Northwestern’s law school.

He served in the U.S. Navy, reached the top of his field practicing antitrust law, and successfully prosecuted corrupt members of the Illinois judiciary.

He then went on to receive an appointment to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals by President Nixon and was ultimately chosen as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1975.

Nearly 35 years later, Justice Stevens leaves a court that in so many cases took his opinions and introduced them to the nation as binding precedent.

Stevens, like his former colleague Justice David Souter, was appointed by a Republican president.

Today, he is the undeniable liberal icon of the bench. His shift from a self-proclaimed judicial conservative to the court’s most regular liberal voice is more a reflection of the evolution of the court than of Stevens himself.

In a 2007 interview with The New York Times, Stevens spoke of a conservative trend for the court: “Including myself, every judge who’s been appointed to the court since Lewis Powell has been more conservative than his or her predecessor. Except maybe Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg. That’s bound to have an effect on the court.”

In short, in almost 40 years, the Supreme Court has undergone a significant change.

In a way dissimilar to other branches of federal government and unreflective of the trends in public opinion in that same time span, the Court has reversed longstanding precedent and made rulings that would have been unthinkable in the years under Chief Justices Earl Warren and Warren Burger.

For decades, the Supreme Court made America’s tough decisions. Without Brown v. Board of Education, segregation could have persisted into the 1970s, when public opinion began to truly change on race relations. Without Gideon v. Wainwright or Miranda v. Arizona, rights of the accused could be neglected and abused still today.

Under the current Roberts Court, there have been more 5-4 split decisions than we’ve seen in decades, and conservative legal interpretations have kept the nation from evolving.

In appointing a new justice to replace Stevens, Obama has an opportunity to appoint a young jurist to leave a lasting impact on the high court.

The appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito allowed the Bush administration to guide the court down a conservative path. Obama now must stem that rightward trend and bring more balance to the Supreme Court.

The president should continue his non-confrontational and unifying rhetoric regarding his upcoming court pick. But he shouldn’t shy away from the fact that our Supreme Court has become too conservative and must be returned to a spirit of consensus and progression.

Justice Stevens would want that, and our forward-thinking and dynamic nation deserves that.

Ian Sams is a junior majoring in political science. This is the last column in his series.