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John Paul Stevens Was My Personal Hero, William Treanor Says


Our next guest considered the late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens his personal hero. The retired justice died yesterday at age 99. He was on the court for three decades and more until 2010. And his admirers include William Treanor, who is dean of the Georgetown Law Center. And he's on the line. Good morning, sir.

WILLIAM TREANOR: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What made John Paul Stevens a hero to you?

TREANOR: He was a justice who was committed to the rule of law, who was brilliant and who had absolute integrity.

INSKEEP: Now, you say committed to the rule of law. I suppose we would say that of any Supreme Court justice, or they would say that about themselves. But is there some way to characterize his particular style or philosophy in applying the law?

TREANOR: He wasn't a formalist. In other words, he didn't have kind of a great theory of originalism like many members of the court. He was very much focused on the cases and precedent. And he changed his mind over time. So in many areas of the law, for example, with respect to affirmative action and death penalty, he changed his mind during his tenure on the court and came to new decisions.

And I met him in - about 10 years ago in 2005 when Fordham Law, which I was dean of at the time, had a celebration to mark 30 years of his time on the bench. And what his speech was - was he talked about learning on the job and the way in which thinking through cases, thinking through the law made him change his views over time, but what was consistent was the commitment to getting the cases right.

INSKEEP: When he changed his mind then, would he do that all-too-rare thing of actually admitting he had changed his mind and come to a different conclusion?

TREANOR: He did. He did. It really was quite remarkable. So he did change his mind on a number of very important areas of the law. And people were surprised that a Republican appointee - he was appointed by President Ford - ultimately became the leader of the liberal wing of the court. But what was very striking to me was when we had the event at Fordham, which Professor Abner Greene, who was one of his clerks, put together - in advance of the symposium, I received a letter from President Ford, to my surprise. And I think there had been a general thought that President Ford would feel like he'd made a mistake when he appointed Justice Stevens because Justice Stevens had become the liberal leader of the court.

And so I, you know, opened the mail, and I got a letter from President Ford. And he said - and it was really - it was quite remarkable - that he was very proud of his selection of Justice Stevens to be on the court and that he would be happy if his legacy as president was assessed on the basis of his appointment of Justice Stevens.

INSKEEP: Now, our correspondent, Nina Totenberg, has pointed out that he was - he wrote majority opinions. He was in the majority on cases involving affirmative action, as you said, property rights, immigration, school prayer - a wide range of things. I want to ask about one particular dissent, though. In the 5-to-4 Bush v. Gore decision in 2000, which decided the presidential election, he was in the four. He was on the losing side and wrote a quite memorable dissent in which he said that this decision would undermine the nation's confidence in judges. How important was he in those moments when he was on the losing side of cases?

TREANOR: Well, he was a great dissenter. He was a great dissenter. I think he felt that one of his obligations as a justice on the Supreme Court was to voice what his thoughts were in a clear way in order to produce national discussion. And that was really one of his landmark decisions as a dissent - and very, very forceful.

INSKEEP: Force national discussion, meaning he was saying the Supreme Court is the final word, but actually we're not the final word. And I'm going to keep this thing going with the way that I protest against what happened.

TREANOR: He did say that, but I think he was also signaling when he wrote his speech "Learning On The Job" that justices could change over time. So he was both expressing his dissent, but he had faith in the future, and he had extraordinary faith in the court.

INSKEEP: Mr. Treanor, thanks very much for your insights.

TREANOR: Thank you very much. It's a - Justice Stevens' passing is a great loss, but he leaves a profound legacy.

INSKEEP: William Treanor is dean of the Georgetown Law Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.