Five Chiefs by John Paul Stevens

February 27, 2014

John Paul Stevens served as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court from December 1975 until June 2010, about 34 and one-half years. During his tenure—the third longest in Supreme Court history[1]—he served with Chief Justices Warren Burger, William Rehnquist and the current Chief, John Roberts.

Five Chiefs is a delightful, 250-ish page memoir of the first 91.5 years of John Paul Stevens’ life. (He’s alive and fast approaching his 94th birthday.) The five Chiefs include, in addition to the three I already mentioned, Fred Vinson (in place when Justice Stevens clerked for Justice Wiley Rutledge) and Earl Warren, before whom he appeared in his only oral argument before the Court. (Non-attorney readers:  an appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court is a really big deal!)

Five Chiefs follows an unstructured structure. Justice Stevens digresses frequently, but moves forward always, beginning with a chapter about the 12 Chief Justices of the United States who preceded Chief Justice Vinson. Next, he offers up a chapter that focuses on the office, followed by chapters about each of the five Chiefs. The closing chapter is titled “Second among Equals,” and examines the role of the Senior Associate Justice, an informal role that Justice Stevens filled for almost 16 years.

Good memoirs reflect their authors. Five Chiefs shares with readers a modest, scary smart, hard-working, well-adjusted man. That modesty becomes evident when, summing up the bitter pill—for Justice Stevens—that was Bush v. Gore, the case that decided the 2000 Presidential election), he writes:  “What I still regard as a frivolous stay application kept the Court extremely busy for four days.” Alas, to me—and others—it felt like the Earth was not moving!

Five Chiefs also reflects a man whose span includes everything from an ability to discuss judicial philosophies on the Court, as well as Justice Hugo Black’s tennis game and Chief Justice Burger’s birthday celebration rituals. He offers lots of cool tidbits, always without rancor even when the feelings must be strong.

In sum, Justice Stevens shines through as a regular person. A gentleman! Someone whose company you’d likely enjoy. (I have met, briefly, three other members of the Court, and been in the presence of a fourth, and I got a different sense about all of them.)

The book carries as its subtitle A Supreme Court Memoir and, therefore, does not provide tell-all details. A great Sunday New York Times article by Jeffrey Rosen, The Dissenter, John Paul Stevens, published in 2007, fleshes out plenty of details. Here are two that resonated with me:

Justice Stevens was born to a wealthy, prominent Chicago family. His grandfather and father built and owned the Stevens Hotel, which is now the Hilton Chicago. (The final scenes in The Fugitive were set in the hotel.) His family lost everything in the Depression, and his father was convicted of embezzlement. The conviction was later overturned, and Justice Stevens is not shy about noting that the system misfires from time to time.

Justice Stevens was appointed by President Gerald Ford. President Ford, as the House Minority Leader, had led an effort to impeach William O. Douglas. The irony, of course, becomes evident because many people labeled Justice Stevens—definitely a republican, always—the leader of the Court’s liberal wing. On this issue he told Jeffrey Rosen:

I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all. I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative.

On this issue Justice Stevens’ comment may say more about our times than it does about his political views.

Read Five Chiefs. Or read the Jeffrey Rosen piece. Or read both of them. Learn about this man, though, for he’s someone you want in your life.


[1] Justice Stevens replaced William O. Douglas, the Court’s longest serving justice. Between them, they were on the Court for just shy of one-third of its entire existence. And Justice Douglas replaced Lewis Brandeis, the Court’s first Jewish Justice and a leading light in the law. A distinguished seat, certainly!

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