Chicago doesn’t cherish local boy John Paul Stevens as much as it should. Maybe next year, when the former Supreme Court justice turns 100, he’ll get his due.
Though now is not too early to kick off the celebration by reading his new book “The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years” (Little Brown, $35).
An unfortunate subtitle — apparently the book was five years in the making, though you’d think in that time somebody at his publisher would have noticed that Stevens places the presidential election of Jimmy Carter in 1978, as opposed to 1976, the year that event took place in temporal reality.
Not to start with a gaffe in a book that is, generally, an engaging if, by necessity, legalistic account of the key issues that frame our national conversation.
Stevens is so long-lived, perhaps it can be forgiven if the years blur.
He remembers going to the 1929 World Series at Wrigley Field and seeing Babe Ruth make his called shot in 1932. His father and grandfather built the Stevens Hotel — now the Hilton Chicago — and, as a boy, Stevens met Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. His first job was as a wandering raisin tart salesman at the 1933 Century of Progress Fair, the fourth star in the flag of Chicago.
Stevens was invited to become a Navy cryptographer, spending World War II deciphering Japanese communications, then returned to Chicago to get his law degree at Northwestern.
The book offers a glimpse into the Chicago legal world of the late 1940s and 1950s. He joins Poppenhusen, Johnston, Thompson, Raymond and Mayer — the future Jenner & Block — when it has 24 attorneys, and they dock his pay for the day he travels to Springfield to be sworn into the Illinois bar.
Chicago readers will find much of local interest, particularly early 1970s scandals during the time Stevens was a judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. During his 1975 nomination hearings, there is one surprising cameo by local oddity Anthony Robert Martin-Trigona, better known as gadfly candidate Andy Martin, who was taken seriously enough to be allowed to testify.
The bulk of the book, though, moves lockstep through many of the 1,400 cases that Stevens weighed during 36 years as a Supreme Court justice.
Yes, he explores the hot-button issues of today, including race, abortion and capital punishment, which he feels should be abolished. He also describes historic moments such as the Bush vs. Gore election, which he places correctly in the year 2000.
But consider the following sentence:
”The term produced several other decisions retreating from Warren Court precedents, decisions from which I dissented, including Minnesota v. Murphy, which restricted the scope of Miranda by holding that a probationer who had been required to attend a meeting with his probation officer, who wishes to question him about a murder, need not have been given Miranda warnings; Oliver v. United States, which held that drug officers who trespassed onto private property by passing a locked gate with a no trespassing sign had not conducted a ‘search’ under the Fourth Amendment; Segura v. United States, which held that an eighteen-to-twenty hour warrantless occupation of a private apartment did not require the suppression of evidence found during that occupation because a warrant was issued ...”
There’s more like that, but you get the idea. If you found the truncating of the above frustrating, this book is for you. Though be warned: Stevens is a courtly man, in every sense, and no colleague is anything other than esteemed. And while some are more esteemed than others, it takes a close read to detect the merest whisper of criticism.
Stevens has written forcefully about what our country needs to do to find its way toward a more sane public policy. His previous book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution” is valuable, or would be if our nation were heading toward rationality and not slouching into chaos.
His arguments are echoed in “The Making of a Justice,” which provides much food for thought for law students, lawyers and those interested in the legal underpinning of our present national mess.
For instance, regarding guns.
“Throughout most of our history there was no federal objection to laws regulating the civilian use of firearms,” he notes, quoting retired Chief Justice Warren Burger, calling the NRA’s distortion of the Second Amendment “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”