John Paul Stevens, who died in Florida yesterday at 99 of complications from a stroke, watched Babe Ruth’s “called shot” home run at Wrigley Field in 1932 and lived long enough to see his beloved Chicago Cubs win the World Series in 2016, breaking the Curse of the Billy Goat and ending a 108-year drought. The retired justice liked to joke that throwing the opening pitch before a game in 2005 was one of his proudest achievements.
History is more likely to remember the bow-tied Stevens as a bulwark against presidential power during his 35 years on the Supreme Court, a legacy that’s particularly salient against the backdrop of President Trump’s escalating efforts to thwart congressional oversight and resist subpoenas with expansive claims of executive privilege.
Stevens wrote for a unanimous court in 1997 that Bill Clinton must face Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit because a sitting president does not have immunity from all civil lawsuits for actions when he was not in office. In 2004, he authored the court’s 6-to-3 decision that rejected the George W. Bush administration’s view that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay should have no opportunity to dispute their detentions in federal court. In 2006, he wrote the 5-to-3 decision that blocked Bush from using military commissions to try those prisoners without congressional consent.
“The Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law that prevails in this jurisdiction,” Stevens concluded in that case, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.
These are just three of the roughly 400 majority opinions that Stevens authored while on the high court from 1975 until his retirement, at 90, in 2010. Many included reminders that, in America, no one – including the president – is supposed to be above the law.
Stevens was confirmed unanimously by the Senate only a year after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace and just 19 days after Gerald Ford nominated him. He was the last justice to be confirmed without a televised hearing or without a senator trying to ascertain his views on abortion rights. Nixon had appointed Stevens to the Chicago-based circuit court in 1970. Known as a moderate Republican and an expert in antitrust law, he had earned plaudits for investigating two corrupt justices on the Illinois Supreme Court.