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Professor Galbraith shares perspective on the legacy of late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens

July 18, 2019

In light of the death of former Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, Penn Law professor and former clerk Jean Galbraith reflects on his legacy: 

“Justice Stevens was extraordinary.  He was unfailingly kind, calm and wry, with a brilliant mind and an astounding memory.  In cases of statutory interpretation, he cared deeply about legislative purpose. On constitutional cases, he was sensitive not only to the particular language of the Constitution and its interpretation through practice and precedent, but also to the underlying commitment it makes to justice, rights, and equality.  Above all, Justice Stevens had judgment. He was effortless in grasping all the implications of a case and in approaching law within the broader framework of justice. 

Clerking for Justice Stevens was one of the greatest honors of my life. I can shut my eyes now and be back in the law clerk office, where the Justice would sit in a battered old chair debating the cases with us for hours at a stretch. At oral arguments, he had a way of cutting to the heart of a case and asking a devastating question, usually prefaced politely with ‘May I just ask one question.’  Yet he was sensitive to how hard it is to argue a case before the Court. On the wall of our office was an award that recounted a story of how, once, the Chief Justice had scolded a mediocre counsel for continuing to refer to the justices as ‘judges.’ As the lawyer began an agonizing apology, Justice Stevens leaned forward to say, ‘Don’t worry too much, Counsel. The Constitution makes the same mistake.’  He loved his job and brought an endless energy to it. I remember one day in late June, after all the cases were decided for that term, when he came into our office to ask hopefully whether any of the briefs for the next term were ready yet.   

In any room, he was both the most unassuming person and the wisest. As Justice Souter said of him at the time of his retirement, ‘Through all the years and all the Stevens opinions, there run the unbroken strands of intelligence, honest, and decency: whence comes the integrity that alone earns the Republic’s trust and the Supreme Court its authority.’”

Jean Galbraith, Professor of Law