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On Tuesday, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian in the United States, to twelve remarkable individuals who have excelled in fields ranging from grassroots activism to government service, music, literature, medicine, and even space exploration. The honoree list included such heavyweights as Toni Morrison, Bob Dylan, Juliette Gordon Low, Dolores Huerta, and the third-longest sitting Supreme Court justice in U.S history, Justice John Paul Stevens.
Introducing Justice Stevens, Obama cited his “clear and graceful manner [in] the defense of individual rights and the rule of law, always favoring a pragmatic solution over an ideological one” as the basis for the honor, as well as his inspirational dedication “to applying our Constitution with fidelity and independence.”
The day after receiving the award, Stevens spoke at the University of Arkansas, lambasting the now infamous Citizens United decision and questioning the current justices’ commitment to the ruling, largely because of the inconsistent ways they have applied it in subsequent campaign finance cases. Observers have speculated that some partisan Republicans may intimate that the only reason Justice Steven received this honor was as payback for these and other critical remarks against the Citizens United decision.
But let’s look at a few of the real reasons why Justice Stevens received and deserved this honor:
One, aside from sitting on the bench for 35 years, third only to his predecessor, William O. Douglass, Justice Stevens has been a steadfast advocate for equal access to justice and fair application of the law.
Although when appointed in 1975, Stevens was a self-proclaimed conservative voting against affirmative actions and in favor of stringent speech restrictions, he often espoused the importance of learning on the job. And his evolution suggests that he certainly did learn. After 35 years, he changed his views on speech restrictions in his dissent from ACLU v. Ashcroft and on affirmative action, voting to uphold the University of Michigan’s diversity policy in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003. He also wrote the seminal Wallace v. Jaffree majority opinion, which struck down an Alabama law forcing students to participate silent spiritual meditation or prayer in public schools. In that opinion, Stevens asserted, with his usual astuteness, that “the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all.”
Two, he authored the most cited SCOTUS majority opinion of all time, Chevron USA v. Natural Resources Defense Council.
His opinion protects the unambiguous will of Congress over any threat of judicial activism, stressing that the courts must defer to and enforce legislative intent when it is in conflict with administrative agency interpretation. This may seem boring and inconsequential, but this “Chevron deference” directly protects the rights of individuals to demand and receive redress when federal agencies fail to follow federal statutes that protect against discrimination and safeguard against environmental degradation, among other things.
Third, Justice Stevens understands that “one person one vote” is more than just a maxim, but rather the very foundation on which our country was built.
A foundation that must be protected and not razed by letting politics creep into the Court’s chambers. This understanding was evidenced in his blistering dissent in Bush v. Gore in which he insisted that the need to keep politics out the courtroom extends beyond public confidence in the results of that particular election but confidence in the court itself. He wrote, “Although we many never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
Finally, Justice Stevens knows when to hold ’em and knows when to fold ’em.
In 1976, he sided with the majority in Gregg v. Georgia, which lifted the federal moratorium on the death penalty. After his retirement, Stevens admitted that this was the one vote that he regretted. It takes a big person to admit when he or she is wrong and to walk away from a past position that he or she no longer believes in. The current justices could take a lesson in courage from him, and should perhaps listen to Justice’s Steven’s words at the University of Arkansas.
Of course, this is just a short list. (Let’s not forget about the bow ties; bow ties are cool.) Justice Stevens is not only one of longest sitting justices on the bench but one of the most lauded, the most influential, and the most dedicated.
He is dedicated not only to his country and to the principles on which it was founded, but to the lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness of his fellow citizens, even those who don’t sit on the boards of Fortune 500 companies. As the president said on Tuesday, “Even in his final days on the bench, Justice Stevens insisted he was still ‘learning on the job.’ But in the end, we are the ones who have learned from him.”