After months of speculation, Justice John Paul Stevens made it official today and announced he is retiring from the Court after it completes its summer business. Stevens, who turns 90 in a couple of weeks, leaves behind a legacy far more complicated than the “liberal” moniker placed on him. Appointed by Gerald Ford in the wake of the Watergate scandal, his appointment was seen as an effort at bridging the harsh and polarized political climate of Watergate, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights marches.
On the eve of his retirement it’s safe to say the country finds itself in a similar spot. Yet in that climate Justice Stevens cultivated a reputation of judicial civility. Many on the right find disagreement with every stand taken by Justice Stevens, yet no one would criticize the Justice as partisan or political. On that point it becomes clear just how much this country has changed.
Republicans have decided that obstructing any initiative from the Obama administration and Democratic Congress is far better for short-term political gain then actually working toward solving the very real problems facing our country. And a look at those Justices currently sitting on the Court that meet with Republican approval–Justices Scalia, Alito, and Roberts in particular–leaves little faith that the right will make any efforts to find common ground in any nominee to replace Justice Stevens.
The names most widely circulated–federal appeals court judge Diane Wood and Solicitor General Elena Kagan– are both immanently qualified for the appointment and neither are seen as radical ideologues. At least not by members of the legal community and mainstream politics. But without missing a beat Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona has already promised to invoke delaying tactics to block the nominee, despite the fact that an official nominee has yet to surface.
In my opinion Kagan is the current frontrunner and an excellent choice. As Solicitor General she’s argued a number of cases before the Court, including defending controversial Bush-era detention and security policies. She was the first woman dean of the Harvard Law School where she developed a reputation for hiring prominent conservative legal scholars and bridging disagreements between the liberal and conservative members of the faculty. She, more than anyone else disclosed to be in circulation right now, would sit in the spirit of retiring Justice Stevens.
And opposition to her nomination would be the clearest sign that the Republicans no longer have a substantive platform aside from consolidating wealth and power among a theocratic, male elite. Which makes the retirement of Justice Stevens all the more symbolic of a passing era, one where our courts truly sought to balance power grabs made by the executive and legislative branches and act as a voice of reason, and when needed, passion in support of our constitutional ideals. Justice Stevens, as both a scholar of law and history, understood that our Constitution and our culture are intertwined. His decisions reflect a respect for a country that announced its presence with a declaration that all were created equal and granted inalienable rights that cannot be taken away by man or governments. Thank you, Justice Stevens, for your tireless commitment to this democracy, our Constitution, and all the people of this nation regardless of their status. Your legacy is among the greatest of the bench and our country is a far better place as a result of your service.
photo courtesy of dbking via Flickr