November 28, 2014
In today’s heavily politicized climate, it seems inconceivable that a president would seek to fill a Supreme Court vacancy with a “nonpolitical” nominee. But that’s exactly what President Gerald Ford did when he nominated Justice John Paul Stevens to fill a seat vacated by Justice William O. Douglas. Stevens’ nomination by Ford occurred 39 years ago today, on November 28, 1975.
Ford came to select Stevens not because he was personally acquainted with him, as Douglas had been with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Instead, Stevens was selected because of his close friendship with Ford’s attorney general, Edward Levi (who himself had been suggested to Ford by Donald Rumsfeld, then Ford’s White House chief of staff).
Ford charged Levi with finding a nominee that could be confirmed by the Senate, which was held by a 60-seat Democratic majority at the time. Being friends with Stevens, Levi knew of his reputation as a competent and mainstream jurist, and Levi recommended him to Ford.
And Stevens proved that he could easily find the Senate’s approval: he was confirmed on December 17, 1975 by a vote of 98-0.
Of course, those familiar with Justice Stevens’ Supreme Court career may be surprised that he may be labeled “nonpolitical,” considering that he retired in 2010 as one of the Court’s most liberal members.
Interestingly enough, though, Stevens doesn’t view himself as a liberal “at all” according to a 2007 interview with The New York Times. Stevens actually considers himself to be a “judicial conservative,” and he claims that he only appears liberal today because “every judge who’s been appointed to the court since Lewis Powell has been more conservative than his or her predecessor. Except maybe Justice Ginsburg.”
Thus, according to Stevens, he wasn’t considered liberal when he was nominated back in 1975, but only now appears liberal because of the notable rightward shift in justices appointed to the Court.
That isn’t to say, though, that Stevens’ judicial views haven’t undergone some changes over the years. In 1976’s Gregg v. Georgia, Stevens voted to reinstate the death penalty after a four year de facto moratorium instituted by the 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision; in 2008, however, Stevens declared that he believes the death penalty to be unconstitutional.
Stevens was also critical of affirmative action policies in 1976’s landmark Regents of the University of California v. Bakke and 1980’s Fullilove v. Klutznick, yet he joined the majority in 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School.
Nevertheless, many of the issues on which Stevens appears the most liberal, such as abortion, LGBT rights, and church-state separation, didn’t come before the court in any level of significance before the 1980s, when the Court began to take its hard turn to the political right. Thus, it’s certainly likely that, although Stevens’ views on some issues have evolved over time, most of his views have remained largely the same since he was nominated 39 years ago, and that it’s the rest of the Court around him that has changed.
However, although he was considered “nonpolitical” at the time and considers himself a “judicial conservative,” Stevens’ record from his time on the Supreme Court reflects one of a liberal jurist – perhaps demonstrating that labels are in the eye of the beholder.