Monday, April 12, 2010

Justice John Paul Stevens Set to Retire, Loss of Pro-Choice Ally

At a forum in his honor at Fordham University Law School in 2005, Justice John Paul Stevens declared an important principle not often recognized by the Roberts Court: "Learning on the job is essential to the process of judging."

Stevens exemplified this M.O. during his 34 years as a Supreme Court Justice, becoming one of the more liberal members of the Court through a varied trajectory. His announcement to retire at the end of this term marks the regrettable loss of both an ally for women's rights and of a certain integrity in jurisprudence.

As the first Justice named to the Supreme Court after the decision of Roe v. Wade, Stevens initially exhibited a slight conservative bent, voting against requiring the government to pay for abortions for women who could not afford them. As Linda Greenhouse notes in her piece about the eras of judicial politics Stevens' tenure straddles, "little in his early performance suggested that he would come to play an important strategic role in preserving the right to abortion, let alone that he would retire three decades later as the leader of the court’s remaining liberals."

But, learning in the process, Stevens came to consistently vote to uphold Roe v. Wade, supported affirmative action, and championed lesbian gay and transgender rights. Stevens is now among the strongest supporters of the right to choose currently serving on the Supreme Court, as his record reflects a respect for individual freedom and opposition to political interference in personal decisions.

As this summer is bound to bring an ardent battle over Steven's replacement, it is my hope that whoever is nominated not only learns from their job, but also learns from Justice Stevens.

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