John Paul Stevens, Legal Historian

In “John Paul Stevens, Originalist,” an article published last year in Northwestern University Law Review, I examined how Justice Stevens, during his 34-plus years on the U.S. Supreme Court, had treated the interpretive methodology known as originalism. I wrote of a 1985 speech in which Edwin Meese III, President Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General, “urged adoption of a single standard –  ‘a Jurisprudence of Original Intention’ that would obligate judges to be guided solely by what the Framers chiefshad meant when they selected the words of the Constitution.'” Justice Stevens pushed back in his own speech the same year and in a 1986 lecture, The Third Branch of Liberty. “Stevens,” I wrote, “identified ‘the probable intent of the Framers’ to give to ‘future generations of judges’ the power and duty to check majoritarian abuses of individual liberty.” After examining Stevens’ treatment of history in cases involving the 2d Amendment, my article quoted Stevens’ Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir 226 (2011):

‘Historical analysis is usually relevant and interesting, but it is only one of many guides to sound adjudication.’

Though Stevens left the bench in 2010, he scarcely may be called retired. He’s written the just-quoted memoir and several New York Review of Books essays, and given a host of speeches. The latest of these was delivered in Louisville, Kentucky, a couple weeks ago – just 2 days before Stevens celebrated his 93d birthday, to be exact. Entitled “Glittering Generalities and Historic Myths,” it illustrates the role that history continues to play in Stevens’ thinking about law. Stevens identified instances in which the Court contributed to the making and maintenance of myths, some of which, he said, “have a longer life expectancy than the truth.” Identification of each myth implied disapproval of the decisions that had relied on them.

► Thus incurring criticism was the Court’s recent 2d Amendment cases; in particular, the most recent, McDonald v. Chicago (2010).

As I described beginning on 757 of my “Originalist” article, McDonald marked the last case in which Stevens wrote. His solo opinion drew retort from his longtime sparring partner on matters of constitutional interpretation, Justice Antonin Scalia. Stevens’ Louisville speech challenged as myth 2 views of history that underlay the majority’s invalidation in McDonald, on federal constitutional grounds, of a local gun-control ordinance: 1st, the view that the Court got it wrong in Slaughter-House Cases (1873); and 2d, the view that the Court got it right in  United States v. Cruikshank (1875).

Justices were not wrong but right in upholding local health laws in Slaughter-House, Stevens wrote, though “unfortunately” they rested their decision on a little-used, and in his view not-useful, constitutional ground. They were not right but wrong, Stevens ColfaxMassacreadded, to set aside in Cruikshank 3 convictions for the April 13, 1873, killings of scores of African-American men in Colfax, Louisiana. (image credit) (As Stevens noted, Charles Lane depicted these events in The Day Freedom Died (2009).) The release of the defendants in Cruikshank enabled a “myth that they were heroes fighting for a noble cause,” Stevens wrote, not to mention a myth “that laws that failed to preserve white supremacy were ‘misrule.'” Stevens’ speech endorsed the lower court’s articulation of state action doctrine. In an expansive rendering that anticipated the next century’s human rights jurisprudence, that court, in United States v. Hall, 26 F. Cas. 79, 81 (C.C.S.D. Ala. 1871), had defined denial of equal protection as follows:

‘Denying includes inaction as well as action, and denying the equal protection of the laws includes the omission to protect, as well as the omission to pass laws for the protection of his fundamental rights, as well as the enactment of such laws.’

► Also drawing Stevens’ attention were 2 decisions dating from the World War II era – an era that, as I have written here and here, informed Stevens’ own jurisprudence in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks against U.S. targets on September 11, 2001.

quirinAddressed 1st was Ex parte Quirin (1942), in which the Court unanimously approved secret-tribunal convictions of 8 Germans who’d landed on U.S. soil with the aim of committing sabotage. Among the 8 was a man presumed a U.S. citizen, so that in post-9/11 legal discourse the judgment has been cited as authority that citizens may be treated as “enemy combatants” and thus deprived of a panoply of rights. Quirin mythology also includes, Stevens wrote, “the mythical inference that their apprehension was the product of superior intelligence work by the FBI.” (image credit) In fact, citing Jess Bravin’s Terror Courts (2013), Stevens noted that the FBI learned of the plot only when a conspirator turned himself in.

Discussed 2d was In re Yamashita (1946), in which a majority of the Court sustained an overseas U.S. military commission’s capital conviction of the general who, as Stevens wrote, “had assumed command of the Japanese forces in the Philippines shortly before the war ended.” Today thyamae decision is the taproot for the doctrine of command responsibility, by which superiors are held liable for failing to prevent their troops from committing atrocities. But it did not win the favor of Stevens, who clerked for a Yamashita dissenter, Justice Wiley B. Rutledge Jr., a couple years later. Stevens’ speech cited Yamashita’s Ghost: War Crimes, MacArthur’s Justice, and Command Accountability (2012), in which author Allan Ryan dispels “the myth that General Yamashita was a war criminal because he failed to prevent the troops under his command from committing unspeakably cruel atrocities.” In fact, Ryan’s book contends “not just that the General did not authorize any of the atrocities – but that he did not even know about them and probably could not have prevented them even if he had ….” (credit for photo of trial of Yamashita) The former Justice concluded:

‘If the prosecution’s theory of the case were applied to the American Army in the Viet Nam conflict, General Westmoreland would receive the death penalty for failing to prevent the My Lai atrocities.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s