Monday, April 20, 2015

Happy 95th Birthday, Justice Stevens!

Today is the 95th birthday of retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and I am writing in honor and appreciation of his long, fruitful life.
Stevens, who was born in Chicago in 1920, was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ford in 1975. He served in that position for 35 years, retiring in 2010.
(It is interesting to note that when he was appointed to the Supreme Court, he was one of eight Protestants among the nine Justices. When he retired and was replaced by Elena Kagan, a Jew, there were no longer any Protestants on the Court.)
In spite of retiring at the age of 90, Justice Stevens has continued to be active. The picture on the left was taken last April 30 as he was testifying before the Senate Rules Committee on Capitol Hill.
It was also just last year that his new book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” was published. While all six of Justice Stevens’s proposed amendments are significant, I am most interested in four of them.
Those four would do away with political gerrymandering, would make it possible for the U.S. Congress or states to limit the amount of money that could be spent in election campaigns, would do away with the death penalty, and would change the Second Amendment to read, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.
Since I wrote about the latter issue previously (here), I will not say more about that at this time.
With regard to the first issue mentioned above, gerrymandering, as you know, means manipulating boundaries of electoral districts so as to favor one party or group. Justice Stevens’s proposed amendment would address the seriously flawed boundary lines for U.S. representatives which have been drawn in many states across the nation.
The highly controversial 5-4 “Citizens United” decision of the Supreme Court in January 2010 was strongly criticized by Justice Stevens. He wrote a 90-page dissenting opinion, setting forth his unhappiness with the majority position.
It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the six amendments to the Constitution that he proposed in his 2014 book is about that decision.
In his talk to the Senate Committee last year Justice Stevens said, “While money is used to finance speech, money is not speech.” So Stevens’s proposed campaign finance amendment would essentially overturn Citizens United, allowing Congress to set “reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in elections.”
In 1976, the year following his appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Stevens voted to uphold the death penalty. When he retired 34 years later, he said that decision was the main one he regretted.
In his 2014 book, he says that retribution is the only legitimate justification for preserving capital punishment—and he doesn’t think that is a good or sufficient reason.
So Justice Stevens now advocates amending the Eighth Amendment to include the words “such as the death penalty” as an example of “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is currently prohibited.
At the time of his retirement in 2010, J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and a member of the Supreme Court Bar, wrote, “Justice Stevens has been a thoughtful, diligent jurist who has served the Court and this country admirably.”
The retired Justice has continued his meritorious public service by his book advocating significant Constitutional amendments.
Happy birthday, Justice Stevens—and thanks for all you have done!


  1. An interesting perspective. Without a full Constitutional convention to re-write the entire document, I cannot imagine any changes to the Bill of Rights. I have heard some argue for eliminating six of them, including first two. Stevens did not promote the most prominent proposals for the next 3 amendments. I think that the document should probably be left alone, as any major change to the original document or Bill of Rights would probably lead to another civil war.

    However the concept of limiting campaign funding to US citizens alone (no businesses, unions, organizations, PACs, foreign/multi-national sources, and non-citizens) does make since.

  2. As NPR's Morning Edition regularly announces the birthdays of high profile individuals, I heard Justice Stevens's mentioned this morning. I'm so grateful for his continuing voice on the issues he and you have written about. I have not read his book, but you have spurred my interest to find it and read it. Thanks for mentioning it.

  3. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson:

    "A thinking jurist in whom we should have hope! May he have many more years on this earth."

  4. Stevens is right on all these issues. It's unfortunate that we would even need to amend the 2nd Amendment. He's talking about making it say without ambiguity what was meant by it to begin with. Only very recently in our history has the radical right and the gun lobby been able to twist it to mean carte blanche for obtaining and carrying guns. Making guns hard to get and hard to keep would save a great many lives--citizens, law enforcement, children. It worked in England and Australia, both of which reversed easy accessibility. All the European countries--in spite of terrorism--are far safer than the U.S. from gun violence; Japan, too. I would dare us to experiment and make guns as challenging to get and keep as cars and driving. I would bet anybody that it would make a huge difference after a relatively short period of time. But, of course, it will be generations and many more needless deaths before we can overcome Americans' addiction to guns and the power of the pro-gun lobby.

  5. Imagining constitutional amendments is a fine thought experiment, but not much of a mechanism for resolving current political problems. Right now it is all power politics, and it will take successful power politics to get the changes Stevens wants. The most likely non-electoral boost would be a Democratic majority on the Supreme Court sometime in the next few years, which could reverse a large number of bizarre 5-4 decisions.

    So, in the spirit of thought experiment, here is my amendment idea. The number of Congressional seats each party wins in an election would be based on the share of the total number of votes cast for Congress in each state. Fractional votes would go to the party with the closest to a full share remaining. Once the numbers for each party were determined, then the winners would be chosen in each party in descending order of votes, with the proviso that only one candidate could be elected from each district.

    Here is how I see this working. Image a state with 10 Congressional districts. If one million votes were cast, it would take 100,000 votes for a party to win a seat outright. So let us assume the Republicans win 480,000 votes, the Democrats 410,000, Third Party A 90,000 and Third Party B 20,000. In this case the Republicans get 5 seats, the Democrats get 4 seats, and Third Party A gets one seat. Notice that no amount of gerrymandering can change this. Starting with the smallest party to win, the top candidate for that party gets a seat (Third Party A). Then the top Democrat not in the district Third Party A just received. Then the top Republican gets a seat. Then alternating parties until all 10 seats are filled. Now whichever district Third Party A wins may be unhappy that the "winner" finished third in the district. And some top vote getters may get bumped. That is the price of neutralizing gerrymandering, and reflecting the overall wishes of the electorate.

    There are many electoral systems that have been created over the years to try to improve on our crazy system. Mathematicians sometimes create them for fun. If the chance ever comes up, I hope something better will be found. In the last few years America has repeatedly had antidemocratic results in our elections, and our country has suffered as a result. For instance, in 2012 Democrats running for Congress received over a million more votes than Republicans, yet the Republicans easily held control of Congress. That is the power of gerrymandering. Fold in the Electoral College and the wildly undemocratic Senate, and you have the makings of a real mess.

  6. Thinking Friend Charles Shields, a retired Baptist pastor who lives in Texas, sent the following comments, and I post them here with his permission:

    "Your comments about Stevens kicks off all kinds of thoughts in my mind. The first concerns old CEOs, old presidents, old pastors. They are often a pain in the ass to their successors. They probably would do society a service if they would just go off and glory in their dottage.

    "I have felt for some time that supreme court judges should not be appointed for life and there should be an age limit on their service. As we have to be examined for a new drivers license every few years, I feel anyone over 80 should be examined physically and mentally.

    "God forbid that the tribe of Stevens should grow who think the Constitution is a living document to be interpreted as one pleases. If all of Stevens’ leftist ideas are implemented, the streets would run red with blood. The utopian and anti-gun crowd perhaps have been in ivory towers disassociated from the working population far too long.

    "To interpret the Second Amendment the way Stevens wishes would raise the alarm about government tyranny (whether it would occur or not) just like our forefathers experienced with the British."

    1. Charles, thanks for writing to share comments about Justice Stevens and his ideas.

      As for me, I am grateful for the wisdom of older statesmen. It is a problem when retired pastors still try to influence congregations they formerly served, and that may be true, too, for retired CEOs.

      But I am thankful for the contributions that have been made through the years by former Presidents Carter and Clinton.

      I am also thankful for the ongoing concerns and thoughtful proposals of Justice Stevens and don't think he should be discounted because of his age.

      To paraphrase, I want people to be judged by the quality and validity of their ideas, and not discounted because of their age.

    2. Concerning your concerns about Justice Stevens's ideas about the Second Amendment, I wish you would read the sixth chapter of his book. His proposal is that that Amendment be amended in order to clarify what its original intention was: to place limits on the powers of the new federal government. As he says, "Concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of the second Amendment" (p. 126).

      Justice Stevens in no way wants to change the original intent of the Second Amendment. He just wants to change the ways it has been skewed by the NRA and others. And he wants to do something to lower the large number of deaths caused by the prevalence of guns in American society.

  7. Leonard Shields is Charles Shields's younger brother. He is a retired Air Force Officer who now lives in Florida. He also gave me permission to post his comments here:

    "Before you begin to praise this senile old man you might want to visit a country that believes in the constitution that he proposes - Zimbabwe. Only the government has guns, you can be shot at their pleasure. Down with capitalism, in comes 2,000,000 % ,that's correct, inflation per year. You can buy a fistful of their one billion notes for $1.00 American. Elections are routinely stolen at the end of a gun.

    "It is interesting that those people Stevens, Kennedys, Clintons, Bloomberg, etc. who are surrounded by armed guards want my daughter to walk home in Brooklyn, NY, at 2:00 pm (from her job, not a bar) with no gun, no pepper spray, no mace, no taser, no knife or club - they want you defenseless. That is Stevens view, if you agree and would like to leave, I will pay your way to Zimbabwe provided you stay.

    "As for me, I will keep my views and my guns and not bow down to left wing liberals that believe everyone should be subservient to them and their views."

    1. What bizarre and ridiculous distortions here. "Senile old man"? "No pepper spray"? "Zimbabwe" of all the countries in the world? It always amazes me how extremist gun lovers and right-wingers think they can just say anything, and people are supposed to take them seriously. Whatever happened to the commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness"?

    2. Leonard, I appreciate you taking the time to share your ideas about Justice Stevens and his proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

      But before you call him a “senile old man,” I would suggest you actually read his book, or at least his chapter about the Second Amendment. I have read that chapter rather carefully, and to be honest, and with all due respect, I have to say that it seems to me that it was more lucid than your comments.

      Why do you think that Justice Stevens proposes a constitution such as what Zimbabwe has? And if you are just writing about “gun control,” why not, say, use Japan as an example? I lived in Japan for 38 years, and even though, or because, it is not permissible for people to own guns, with some exception for hunting, Japan is a very peaceful and safe society where anyone can walk the streets at any time without fear of being shot. My wife and I and our four children who all lived in Japan through high school were always “defenseless”—but we never did need a gun or anything else to protect ourselves in that civil society.

      In the most recent years for which data is available, the firearm-related death rate per 100,000 people in the U.S. was 10.3. By contrast, it was 0.06 in Japan. That is a rate of 6 deaths in Japan for every 1,030 in the U.S. The main reason for Justice Stevens’s proposal is to reduce that terribly high number of gun-related deaths in the U.S.

      Why do you malign Justice Stevens, or me, or other “liberals” for wanting to save lives by legislating sensible gun controls? That, after all, was the main (and probably only) purpose of his suggested amendment.