Stevens: a Republican who grew liberal with the times

Justice John Paul Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens

Some court observers credit U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens with having forged a majority of the court to overturn laws banning private sexual relations between persons of the same sex—the most beneficial gay-related decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court.

Stevens, who turns 90 on April 20, announced Friday, April 9, that he will retire from the high court at the end of June.

In a one-paragraph letter to President Obama, Stevens said he had concluded that “it would be in the best interests of the Court to have my successor appointed and confirmed well in advance of the commencement of the Court’s next term.”

The announcement triggered a storm of media attention that is not likely to subside anytime soon –as President Obama prepares to nominate his second candidate for the nation’s highest court. The nomination will almost certainly trigger another storm—this one on Capitol Hill, where Republicans have dug in to oppose nearly everything the Obama administration and Democratic majority in Congress is trying to pass.

But the news also inspired an outpouring of praise for Stevens as the one of the Supreme Court’s oldest and longest-serving justices.

The Human Rights Campaign called Stevens “fair-minded” and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund hailed him as a “true visionary” to whom the LGBT community “owes much.”

“He has been a strong, clear, and consistent voice for the rights of gay people and other minorities, the disabled, reproductive freedom, and free speech,” said Jon Davidson, Legal Director at Lambda Legal.

It was 2003 when the greatest chunk of that debt was sealed.

Then Chief Justice William Rehnquist and two other justices wanted to uphold the Texas sodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas, according to court historian Jeffrey Toobin. But Stevens, the ranking justice on the other side of the issue, was against it.

“Stevens wisely assigned [Justice Anthony] Kennedy to write the opinion” for overturning the law, wrote Toobin, in his 2007 book The Nine. In fact, Toobin suggests, Stevens studiously chose Kennedy for the assignment as a way of shoring up Kennedy’s vote for those who wanted to overturn the law. And in writing the historic Lawrence v. Texas opinion, Kennedy “drew heavily on Steven’s seventeen-year-old opinion” in Bowers v. Hardwick.

More specifically, Stevens joined the primary dissent, written by then Justice Harry Blackmun in Hardwick, and then penned his own dissent, joined by Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall.

In his fiery dissent, Stevens harshly criticized the majority for ignoring the plain language of the Georgia law prohibiting sodomy—that it prohibited oral or anal sex for any couple, gay or straight.

The sodomy law, said Stevens, was “an unconstitutional intrusion into [Michael Hardwick’s] privacy and his right of intimate association does not depend in any way on his sexual orientation.”

If the right to privacy means anything, wrote Stevens, “it means that, before Georgia can prosecute its citizens for making choices about the most intimate aspects of their lives, it must do more than assert that the choice they have made is an ‘abominable crime not fit to be named among Christians’.”

The Hardwick decision had not only upheld laws prohibiting private sexual relations between people of the same gender, it had been used in a wide variety of arenas to justify further discrimination based on sexual orientation—in employment, in the military, in child custody cases, even in barring the use of the word “Olympics” for a gay athletic event.

Stevens’ position in Hardwick was not a big surprise: In 1976, one year after he was appointed to the court by Republican President Gerald Ford, he, Brennan and Marshall said they thought the court should hear an appeal challenging Virginia’s law against same-sex sodomy; but a majority affirmed the law without hearing arguments.

In June 1987, Stevens was with the majority in Houston v. Ray Hill, that overturned a city ordinance in Houston that was used to stifle protests by a gay activist, Ray Hill, against police harassment of gays.

But 10 days later, Stevens joined the majority in a ruling that the U.S. Olympic Committee’s prohibition of Gay Games organizers from calling their event the “Gay Olympics” the USOC was not violating the First Amendment rights of the gay sporting group. In 1988, he voted with a majority that said the Central Intelligence Agency’s firing of an employee because he was gay was subject to judicial review, and he voted with a unanimous court ruling that upheld the procedure used to fire an employee of the National Security Agency who acknowledged having homosexual relations with citizens of other countries.

For most of his tenure on the court, Stevens was a relative moderate who leaned liberal. With more consistently liberal justices—Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun—on the court, Stevens seemed centrist.

By 1991, after Brennan and Marshall retired, Stevens inevitably began to appear more liberal, relative to the increasingly conservative court. But his vote also became more consistently liberal, and he began to take a leadership role. He voted with the majority in Romer v. Evans in 1996, agreeing that Colorado’s initiative banning any legal protection based on sexual orientation was unconstitutional.

And though, a year earlier, he had agreed with a unanimous court, in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay Group, that the organizers of a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston had a First Amendment right to ban a contingent of gays, he wrote the dissent in 2000, in Boy Scouts v. Dale, opposing the majority’s decision that said the Boy Scouts of America had a First Amendment right to discriminate against gay scout leaders.

Hurley had only a “superficial similarity” to Boy Scouts, said Stevens. Whereas a gay contingent could be said to convey a message when participating in a parade, the same could not be said of a single gay scout leader joining the Boy Scouts.

“Being openly gay,” said Stevens, “communicates a message—for example, that openness about one’s sexual orientation is more virtuous than concealment; that a homosexual person can be a capable and virtuous person who should be judged like anyone else; and that homosexuality is not immoral—but it certainly does not follow that they necessarily send a message on behalf of the organizations that sponsor the activities in which they excel. The fact that such persons participate in these organizations is not usually construed to convey a message on behalf of those organizations any more than does the inclusion of women, African-Americans, religious minorities, or any other discrete group.”

Prejudices against gays, he said, “have caused serious and tangible harms to countless” gay people.

“That harm,” he said, “can only be aggravated by the creation of a constitutional shield for a policy that is itself the product of a habitual way of thinking about strangers.”

The potential impact of the retirement will be measured once President Obama nominates a replacement who is confirmed by the Senate.

One Response to Stevens: a Republican who grew liberal with the times

  1. ChuckG says:

    I am not certain I agree with the title of this article. Certainly, Stevens could be considered liberal-leaning but more centrist, as is mentioned in the article, especially as the court has become more conservative over the years.

    But, I would say as a Republican, he is closer to the original Republicans such as Ike, Nixon, Ford, somewhat Reagan, and Bush-41. I would throw in Goldwater and Rockefeller. Our original RNC was FISCALLY conservative and SOCIALLY neutral or liberal. To paraphrase Goldwater, it is not the business of the US Government to be involved in people’s personal lives. And, I would concur.

    Unfortunately, the RNC has regressed from a group of intellectual, pro-business, pro-self determination champions, to a group of bible-thumping, scripture quoting, Christian nutbars, complete with bedroom-police who cannot address a crowd without a bible in one hand and a cross in another. They have gone so far to the right, they are careening off the edge. Back in the days of Ike, Nixon, and Ford, I rarely heard a word from them or the party regarding religion. This was something personal and certainly it was not used as a litmus test as it is today.

    The RNC has gone from intellectual to idiotic, from class to crass, from free-thinking to religious dogma. The word “conservative” now means social conservative and not fiscal. I am ashamed of what has happened to my party. I doubt it can be saved. If Palin and Huckabee are the best we can put forth, the RNC is doomed. Stevens, by comparison, has tilted only slightly to the left where the RNC has careened to the right.

    I wish Justice Stevens a well-deserved retirement. I am sure his successor will do a great job filling his shoes.

Leave a Reply