The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years, by Justice John Paul Stevens

Nine stars

As I mentioned in a recent review of another book, I love discussion of constitutional documents, particularly through the lens of the courts and its interpretation of the document. Discussions of the U.S. Constitution seems easiest for me to access, so I am subjected to a great deal of discussion on this matter, though my native Canadian one is equally captivating. Of even more interest is when a legal memoir surfaces, using one of the key constitutional actors, which discusses many of these constitutional interpretations. This piece, a legal/judicial memoir by former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) John Paul Stevens, was stellar in its approach to that subject, as well as tackling some of the author’s biographical information during the first ninety-four years of his life. As of this writing, Justice Stevens is still around, set to turn 99 and still as strong-minded as ever, holding the title of third longer serving justice on SCOTUS. Below are some brief summaries of items found in this tome, whose volume is deceptively long, with well over half being endnotes (a good sign for those who want to learn more).

Justice Stevens opens the book with some interesting backstory about his life in and around Chicago. He discusses the Stevens ancestry and name in Illinois, showing how the Christian Scientist beliefs of his mother and business sense of his father helped shape him into a well-rounded young man with a thirst to learn. Stevens majored in English before making his way to law school, where he developed a passion for the law, particularly all things anti-trust. Working both in the public and private spheres, Stevens was able to see how the law and its pitfalls worked in a practical sense, ironing out the wrinkles when needed. He mentions his time in the Navy during the Second World War, as a codebreaker, and the excitement he had working to crack the Japanese Army’s transmissions. The reader also learns of his early political dealings, including attending some of the Republican events in and around Chicago, at a time when politicians tended to speak on the issues and not utilise ‘foreign mud’ to sling at others. His legal work brought him to the attention of those in the Nixon Administration and Stevens was given the chance to sit on the bench of the US Court of Appeals, where he developed his passion for hearing cases and writing opinions than would show his attentiveness and eagerness to explore avenues of the law. Stevens discusses some interesting developments that saw him be asked by President Ford to serve as an Associate Justice of SCOTUS, where the fun really began, and much of the tome takes off.

Stevens tackles his time on the Court in a thorough and yet highly digestible manner. He makes it clear that he was honoured to serve, but also does not hold back in his frank discussion of events. Having served for close to thirty-five years, Stevens has a great deal to say on many topics and uses this soapbox to explore many interesting cases. Stevens tackles some of the interesting aspects of constitutional law throughout his discussions, pertaining especially to personal liberties in the realm of abortion, sexual orientation, free speech, and gender equality. The reader will find many discussions throughout the years on the bench, with many specific cases coming to the forefront. I would be remiss not to mention his swipes at Justice Scalia as they relate to the Second Amendment (gun ownership) throughout the latter portion of the piece, when the topic came back to the Court and had some shocking reinterpretation that favoured a wider interpretation of this controversial part of the constitution. I leave it to the reader to decide how they feel! Stevens also tackles frank commentaries on his fellow Justices—not pulling any punches about how he disagreed with some on their legal views and others on the inability to work effectively on the team—which serves to enrich the read, rather than take away from it. Stevens pulls on the memories of his past legal clerks and offers up detailed discussions of cases, decisions, and even judicial conferences where Justices bantered about the merits of certain legal arguments. His long time on the Court offers readers a rich and very varied view of events over a significant amount of time, as legal standards changed based on the other eight sitting alongside him. Stevens surely made some great friends on the Court, though he never sold out. He was, in my opinion, one of the Justices who looked at the law and not the president who appointed him to make decisions. Many of those on the Court today could take a page out of his book, where each decision drips with ideology that ‘trumps’ what would appear to be central constitutional tenets and precedent by the Court, grounded in strong arguments. Anyone looking for a stellar analysis of the law, particularly from on high need look no further than this piece, which is full of wonderful discussions and frank commentary. I will be looking for his other work to complement my reading of this stellar judicial memoir. Recommended for those with a passion for constitutional discussion and the reader with an interest in legal issues. It is not as long as it looks, as long as the reader is not one to get lost in the minutiae of endnotes and citations.

There is no doubt that this book will not appeal to everyone, even those who love biographical pieces. Justice Stevens does spend some time giving his background, which includes wonderful stories from his youth and adulthood that will be of much interest to some readers. I was quite enthralled with learning all he had to say, specifically his time in the Navy and the war effort he undertook. Admittedly, there is little talk of his own family, with only passing mention of his first wife and children, and a little more about his current wife. I understand this is a legal memoir, though by adding the backstory from the early chapters, I would have hoped to learn more about his children and any anecdotes of their growing up before Stevens ascended to the bench. Perhaps a ‘first volume’ could have been used to discuss this backstory in more detail, though I cannot critique Stevens for his approach to his own life! Stevens uses the bulk of the book to explore his time on the Court, but chooses to lay things out in an interesting manner. He argues that the Court is less a product of its Chief Justice—the way in which many refer to the Court—and more of the newest Justice that has been appointed. Therefore, he includes chapter titles that refer to the ‘X Court’, where the variable is the newest appointee to SCOTUS. Additionally, he breaks down each annual Court sitting, beginning on the first Monday in October, in which he discusses key cases, rulings, and historical happenings from that period. This juxtaposition of events on an annual basis allows the reader to better see the influences of events and how cases developed over the years, based on the actors involved. While the early chapters are quite short, these latter section breaks are much longer and more detailed, something legal keeners such as myself are sure to enjoy. Stevens offers up so much information that even the more dedicated constitutional fan will likely need to take a breather from time to time. The narrative does, at times, get a little technical and ‘deep’, but when it comes to discussing Court decisions, it is sometimes hard to water things down too much, with the specifics under exploration. Overall, this is surely one of the better memoirs I have read in a long time, specifically due to its frank and detailed (in the latter portion) nature.

Kudos, Justice Stevens, for a stellar memoir that held my attention throughout. I did learn a great deal over your decades on the Court and am eager to ready your other publications to learn a little more.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: