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Book review: ‘Five Chiefs’ by John Paul Stevens

Five Chiefs

A Supreme Court Memoir

John Paul Stevens

Little Brown: 292 pp., $24.99

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There is something about the dignity of the Supreme Court that apparently causes its justices to adjust its realities in their writings. Chief Justice Earl Warren, the first chief to write an autobiography (though he died before finishing it), insisted that there had never been any disagreement among his colleagues over Brown vs. Board of Education; that was quaint but false. Justice Stephen Breyer’s most recent book held that the brethren “maintain good relations with one another” no matter how deep their differences; that too is a bit hard to believe.

Now comes John Paul Stevens, the recently retired senior justice, a durable, personable and influential member of the bench whose tenure began with his appointment in 1975 by President Gerald R. Ford. With “Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir,” he joins his predecessors in portraying a panel that stands uniquely apart from the destructive atmosphere of Washington. Despite its welter of 5-4 decisions on crucial constitutional questions in recent years, the Supreme Court Stevens describes is a bastion of manners. Here, the justices chip in for pastries and open every conference by shaking the hand of every colleague. Stevens insists that in all his 34-plus years, he cannot recall a single instance of any justice “showing any disrespect for a colleague.”

Mind you, this is the same court where William O. Douglas used to storm out of the room when Felix Frankfurter began to speak; where Frankfurter and his clerks referred to Warren as the “Dumb Swede"; where Robert H. Jackson and Hugo Black feuded over a recusal matter for years; where William H. Rehnquist once infuriated Thurgood Marshall by referring to illegal immigrants as “wetbacks"; and where William J. Brennan snickered that compared to Warren’s “Super Chief,” Chief Justice Warren E. Burger was a mere “chiefy.” It’s possible that all ill will has been buried in recent years, but it seems unlikely.

Still, one is inclined to forgive Stevens for papering over any animus that may exist among the brethren. This is a gentle memoir by a decent and accomplished public servant. Stevens opts not for jabs or evening scores but rather for reminiscences of his encounters with the five chiefs who form the core of this book: Fred M. Vinson, Warren, Burger, Rehnquist and John G. Roberts Jr.

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In keeping with his approach, most of those men get generous treatment. Stevens praises Vinson for his long service — Vinson did stints in all three branches of the federal government — and credits him with competence, though acknowledging that “he was by no means the intellectual leader of the Court.” Warren comes in for higher praise, both for his landmark tenure as chief justice — Stevens favorably cites his work in Brown, the voting rights case Reynolds vs. Sims and the famous criminal justice ruling in Miranda vs. Arizona — and for his capable handling of the investigation into President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

When it comes to Burger, the first chief with whom Stevens served, Stevens does an admirable job attempting to resurrect that chief’s rather tepid reputation, but the effort says more about Stevens than Burger. As Stevens gently puts it, Burger’s “contributions to the law … have not been fully appreciated.” But Stevens’ account — tracing the Burger court’s work in abortion, the death penalty and endangered species, among other things — properly gives more credit to others than the chief. In the end, Burger added a bit to the law and the administration of the court system, but his greatest contribution seems to have been to get the court its first photocopy machine.

After Burger, whose pomposity and disorganization infuriated many of his colleagues, Rehnquist’s efficiency and light touch were a welcome relief. Stevens’ account captures that change of tone. Rehnquist enjoys singing and even quotes lyrics in one opinion, somewhat to Stevens’ disapproval. Nevertheless, “efficiency and impartiality” were, in Stevens’ words, the hallmarks of Rehnquist’s administration. Stevens does allow himself a mild rebuke at his former colleague’s ideology and decision to adorn his robes with stripes. “Like the gold stripes on his robes,” Stevens writes, “Chief Justice Rehnquist’s writing about sovereignty was ostentatious….”

That leaves the current court and its chief, Roberts, for whom Stevens has a paternal affection and an abiding professional appreciation.

Case in point: Stevens refused for years to attend White House ceremonies for the new justices — he was offended when President Ronald Reagan used the occasion of Anthony M. Kennedy’s swearing-in to assert that his nominee would follow the law rather than make it up — but he broke down when asked to swear in Roberts. In the conferences of the justices, Roberts is “not only articulate and persuasive but also totally honest” in describing the facts and precedents, Stevens reports.

Though Stevens admits to disagreement with Roberts in a few cases, he more forcefully challenges Justice Antonin Scalia over his novel methods of constitutional interpretation, particularly his predilection for relying on his own historical findings in areas such as gun control and cruel and unusual punishment. Stevens describes Scalia’s “historical forays” and “extreme view” of proportionality in sentencing, language that makes clear Stevens’ dismay at some of his colleague’s work, notwithstanding his personal fondness for him.

Stevens’ memoir is not a source of court gossip or even deep insight into its inner workings. Laced with observations on the court’s architecture, traditions and even its seating arrangements, it is rather the collected ruminations of a man who has served his country in war and peace, across the decades. Stevens displeased some of his early conservative supporters and persevered for decades, a model of independence and good humor. His memoir is as gracious as its author and a reminder that Stevens is more than a longtime member of the nation’s highest court. He is a national treasure.

Newton is The Times’ editor- at- large and author of “Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made.” His biography of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Eisenhower: The White House Years,” was published this month.


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