Justice Stevens bridges past, future

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Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens talked about his life this week. | File Photo

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Charles Lindbergh gave John Paul Stevens a bird.

It was the summer of 1927, a few months after Lindbergh became the most famous man in the world by flying from New York to Paris. He was checking out of his Chicago hotel room, and had more presents than he knew what to do with. So he gave the boy in knickers a caged pigeon.

“I named it ‘Lindy,'” Stevens told a packed house at the Harold Washington Library Tuesday, during an hour-long conversation hosted by the Chicago Bar Association that quick-stepped through his very long and most extraordinary life, beginning as a privileged child of Jazz Age Chicago — his father built the Stevens Hotel, long since known as the Conrad Hilton, now the Hilton Chicago — hitting its stride in mid-life as the third-longest serving justice on the United States Supreme Court, and, for the past five years, enjoying a vigorous retirement.

Steven is 95 years old. He still plays tennis and swims in the ocean.

OPINION

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Here was a man who met Amelia Earhart. Who is certain that Babe Ruth really did point into the stands at Wrigley Field during the 1932 World Series, predicting where he’d hit his homer, the famous “Called Shot,” because Stevens, then 12, was there and saw him do it.

It was about a half hour into the program, a conversation with Judge Ann Claire Williams, of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, when he was talking about being a Navy cryptographer in World War II, that I began to worry we’d never get to the Supreme Court part of his life, the way that two-thirds of the way through “Moby-Dick,” readers can start to wonder if the White Whale is ever showing up.

But by the late 1940s, while a top student at Northwestern University Law School, he’s at the Supreme Court, clerking for Justice Wiley Rutledge, an FDR liberal nominee. Stevens was a Chicago lawyer in the 50’s and 60’s — teaching himself to fly and buying a plane in 1967 so he could more easily visit clients. In 1970, a former classmate from his undergraduate days at the University of Chicago, Sen. Chuck Percy — “The Wonder Boy of Illinois,” president of Bell & Howell at 25 — tapped him to be a judge on the 7th Circuit, and five years later Gerald Ford elevated him to the Supreme Court.

Over the next 35 years, Stevens rendered more than 1,400 opinions in a career that defies summation, at least here. He was liberal and, as such, his beliefs could actually mature and change. Williams highlighted the evolution of Stevens’ thought regarding death penalty, from finding it constitutional in Gregg V. Georgia in 1976, to deeming it “cruel and unusual” — and thus banned by the Constitution — for people with mental handicaps in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, to finding it morally wrong altogether in Baze v. Rees in 2008.

“The penalty really does not fit in our society anymore,’ Stevens said.

His advice to young lawyers ranged from the value of studying poetry — which he found “extremely valuable” on the bench because “it helped me in my work as a judge” — to the best way to counteract a bad day: “drink at lunch” (advice he couldn’t have taken too often, or he wouldn’t have made it to 95).

Riding the Divvy back to the paper, I tried to synthesize Stevens’ life. Despite the siren call of nostalgia — it’s more pleasant to bask in the glorious past than than figure out the confusing present — Stevens didn’t dwell too much in yesteryear. True, his first book, “Five Chiefs,” was about the five chief justices he worked under. But unlike many men younger than himself, Stevens throws himself at the future, still, and his second book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” urges exactly that. Some of his suggestions are sadly impossible under the current state of political and moral cowardice — he thinks the 2nd amendment should apply only to Americans serving in militias — but some might actually happen, such as a constraint on gerrymandering, the slicing up of electoral districts for political manipulation, a practice perfected in Chicago and one that both parties see is corroding what’s left of our democracy.

“I hope I’m that sharp when I’m 95,” I said to someone as I related Stevens talk, without too much conviction. Then, recognizing that I’ll be long relegated to a bronze urn in the back of a linen closet by 95, I decided to hope for something perhaps a little more realistic. “I wish I were that sharpnow.”

Follow Neil Steinberg on Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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