For the past 35 years, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens has exhibited great independence on the Supreme Court. Appointed in 1975 by President Gerald Ford as a centrist, Stevens witnessed the steadily increasing conservatism of his peers and eventually became the unwitting leader of the liberal wing of the Court. Students, who tend to identify with liberal ideas, can find in Stevens a champion of many of the causes they believe in.
Stevens played an important role in several of the Court’s more progressive decisions, according to Penn Law professor Seth Kreimer. “[Stevens] was crucial to retaining the right of women to retain control over their reproductive capacities … a variety of free speech rights … [and] obtaining equality with respect to sexual orientation issues, which I think many students benefit from,” Kreimer said.
In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), Stevens joined the majority of the Court in reaffirming Roe v. Wade (1973), the landmark case on abortion rights. “Roe is an integral part of a correct understanding of both the concept of liberty and the basic equality of men and women,” Stevens wrote at the time, planting himself squarely in the pro-choice camp.
His opinion no doubt resonates with students; a poll from NARAL Pro-Choice America released last month found that 59 percent of young people are also pro-choice.
Stevens has also sided with students in several cases involving free speech. In both Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) and Morse v. Frederick (2007), the majority sided with schools that punished students who claimed to be exercising their First Amendment rights. But Stevens dissented with passion both times. “A strong presumption in favor of free expression should apply whenever an issue of this kind is arguable,” he wrote after the first case. Applying similar reasoning to the second case, he argued that affording all people, including students, the freedom of expression “is the basis of our national strength.”
Stevens was also an early supporter of gay rights on the Court. There is no doubt that most young people also value the extension of equality to gays and lesbians. A 2004 survey sponsored in part by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship found that at least 85 percent of young people support equal protection in housing and employment and protection from hate crimes for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, and a majority of young people support gay marriage and adoption rights.
In line with the opinions of young people, Stevens has backed gay rights for decades, most recently in his dissent in Boy Scouts of America et al. v. Dale (2000), in which he argued that a private organization is not allowed to exclude gays and lesbians from membership.
The Supreme Court is so fraught with ideological inflexibility that Stevens’ readiness to adapt his thinking and adopt new points of view as times changed was more than welcome. This flexibility was demonstrated by his opposition to affirmative action earlier in his career and gradual support for the concept later on. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), Stevens held that quota systems for university admissions based on race are unconstitutional. But decades later in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), he joined the majority in deciding that the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions system — which qualitatively benefitted particular racial minorities — was constitutional, a decision that has lasting implications on all university admissions systems, including Penn’s.
“[Stevens] was willing to learn with time and willing to not be frozen with the presuppositions he came in with,” Kreimer said.
And even after Stevens’ retirement, students will continue to benefit from the changes that this willingness to learn has helped to effect in this nation.
Prameet Kumar is a Wharton sophomore from New York. His e-mail address is email@example.com. Political Penndit appears on Wednesdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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