Ford's 1975 pick still a key player on high court

Times Staff Writer

Gerald R. Ford's influence is not entirely in the past. His one Supreme Court appointee, Justice John Paul Stevens, remains a powerful voice on the high court.

Over the last decade, Stevens has emerged as the leader of the court's liberal bloc.

He has played the key role in opinions that upheld the right to abortion, struck down the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants and endorsed equal rights for gays and lesbians. He also has insisted on maintaining a strict separation between church and state.

Stevens wrote the court's opinion this year in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, which declared that prisoners held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are entitled to the basic protections of the Geneva Convention.

Historians and legal scholars differ on how to explain the apparent conflict in Stevens' roles as a GOP appointee and the leading liberal voice on today's court. Some say he has moved to the left in recent years. Others say the court -- and the Republican Party -- have moved to his right since the Ford administration of the mid-1970s.

Ford, who was president between 1974 and 1977, himself was a supporter of abortion rights and in his later years urged the GOP to adopt more moderate stands on social issues.

He also stood behind his appointment of Stevens. "He has served his nation well, with dignity, intellect and without partisan political concerns," Ford said recently.

On Dec. 1, 1975, Ford chose Stevens to fill the seat of legendary liberal Justice William O. Douglas, who had retired after suffering a stroke. For the president, the duty had a touch of irony. As a congressman from Michigan, Ford had tried and failed five years earlier to have Douglas impeached.

Stevens, a Republican from Chicago and a federal appeals court judge, was hailed as a brilliant, moderate and nonpartisan jurist. He won easy confirmation in the Senate, and as expected, he tipped the court somewhat to the right upon his arrival.

The court was then evenly divided on the death penalty, and Stevens joined a moderate-conservative bloc that restored the constitutionality of capital punishment in 1976.

In the 1980s, Stevens was often described as independent and unpredictable. He became the court's senior liberal in the early 1990s after the retirements in quick succession of Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun.

In a statement issued by the court, Stevens, now 86, lauded Ford. "Decency, intellectual honesty and sound judgment are the characteristics possessed by our finest lawyers. Gerald Ford was such a lawyer," Stevens said. "He was a wise president who had the courage to make unpopular decisions that would serve the country's best interests in the long run. Time has proved that his decision to pardon Richard Nixon was such a decision. We mourn his passing but remember his All-American career with admiration, affection and total respect."

Some justices are appointed by presidents who know their strong views. President Reagan and the first President Bush knew they were picking staunch conservatives when they chose Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, respectively.

Others are chosen because they have a reputation as highly capable judges, although their views are largely unknown. Stevens and Justice David H. Souter, the first appointee of the senior President Bush, fit that mold. Neither man was well known by the president who appointed him.

Stevens, however, was well known to Ford's attorney general, Edward H. Levi, who had been dean of the University of Chicago Law School, where Stevens had taught for a time. Levi is credited with the key role in recommending that Ford appoint Stevens.

It is not uncommon for Supreme Court justices to continue to serve for decades after the president who named them.

In 1993, Justice Byron R. White retired from court, 30 years after the assassination of President Kennedy, who had appointed him in 1962. Last year, when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died, he was the last serving appointee of Nixon.


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