ND Expert: Retirement of Justice Stevens emphasizes importance of elections

by Julie Hail Flory

Rick Garnett ND Expert

Today’s announcement of the planned retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens highlights the significance of presidential elections, according to Notre Dame Law School professor Richard W. Garnett.

“Justice Stevens’ retirement gives President Obama an opportunity to shape the work and composition of the Supreme Court for decades to come,” Garnett said. “Indeed, President Obama will enjoy (at least) as many Supreme Court nomination-opportunities in the first 18 months of his presidency as Presidents George Bush and Clinton had in eight years. This is a concrete reminder that in this, as in so many other areas, elections matter.”

Garnett noted that Justice Stevens “will retire as one of the longest-serving and oldest Justices in American history. He served on the Court for as many years as legal giants like Chief Justice John Marshall and Justices Harlan, Field and Story. He was born in 1920, and so could remind today’s generation of law students in his opinions of lessons learned during the nation’s experiment with Prohibition. And, he is the last American Justice who was shaped, as a young adult, by the country’s experiences during the Second World War.”

In Garnett’s view, “Justice Stevens did not influence the Court’s decisions or doctrine through the persistent application of a particular judicial philosophy or methodology. Instead, his influence was primarily a product of the fact that he was, for more than a decade, the senior Justice among a bloc of four liberal-leaning colleagues, at a time when two others would often — in controversial cases, anyway – ‘swing’ from one camp to the other. He used effectively the power and influence that came with that position.”

Garnett added, “in a few areas, he did hold distinctive views – he believed, for example, that some laws regulating abortion were unconstitutional ‘establishments of religion’ – but those views were usually not widely shared.”

Garnett, who clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist in 1996-97, recalled Justice Stevens as friendly, witty and caring. And, he has long enjoyed the respect of his colleagues, and of advocates who appear before the Court.

“Justice Stevens is unfailing cordial, respectful and prepared on the bench,” Garnett noted. “He will be missed, and not only by those who shared his views.”

Contact: Professor Garnett, 574-631-6981, Garnett.4@nd.edu