Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died Tuesday at the age of 99. He was appointed by Gerald Ford, and had spent 35 years on the court before stepping down in 2010.
Former University of Utah law professor Amy Wildermuth clerked for Justice Stevens in 2002 and 2003. She’s now dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and joined KUER’s Doug Fabrizio with this remembrance.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Doug Fabrizio: Tell me about the first moment you met Justice Stevens.
Amy Wildermuth: The first time I met Justice Stevens was when I went to interview with him. During the discussion it came out that his grandchildren were attending the high school where my dad was the principal, so we quickly found common ground. I will say that as soon as I got home I called my dad and I said I hope you haven't screwed this up for me.
DF: What was the impression he gave? What was he like?
AW: Justice Stevens was one of the warmest kindest human beings that you could imagine. Very down to earth very pragmatic and always with a twinkle in his eye.
DF: I've heard him described as not particularly ideological and even as a bit of a loner. Is that right?
AW: I don't know if I would call him a loner. He certainly enjoyed friendships on the Supreme Court. He was very close to several justices. He was a quieter personality, but I think he very much valued the people that were close to him. I think what was different about Justice Stevens is that he didn't stand on a lot of pomp and circumstance. He had a longtime tennis partner somebody who was about 10 years younger. [Stevens] said that was about right. That person called him, “This is my friend who's a lawyer, John.” We were never sure if he knew that he was a justice.
DF: How did he treat you as a clerk and other clerks? There's this story, for example, of him taking over the job of serving coffee to the justices after one older male justice had asked one of the female clerks to do it in a kind of patronizing way.
AW: Yeah. Assuming that the females in the room were serving the coffee — right? That was never Justice Stevens’ instinct. And of course his hiring of clerks reflected his view of the importance of diversity. So, the first thing that I should say here is that he brought with him to D.C. his long-time secretary — administrative assistant Nellie Pitts; And Nellie is African-American and she was the first African-American head of chambers at the Supreme Court. That was really important to Justice Stevens. His diversity in hiring is likely unmatched, and I mean from the perspective of hiring people of color, women, LGBTQ, as well as hiring from non-traditional places. He was the circuit justice and had come from the Midwest, and he hired people who had been to Western law schools like me — gave us a chance.
DF: How would you define the essence of his judicial philosophy? And did that evolve over time? We're hearing him described as you know a Republican who became one of the leaders of the liberal wing of the court.
AW: He always pushed back when people said that he had changed over time, and he said ‘I don't think I changed as much as the court changed.’ Of course, it's a combination of both things — the court changed and he changed somewhat in some views. But, I think that the basis of what he did was around believing in individuals, and believing in what we do to serve society as lawyers and finding that common good for all.
DF: After he retired and certainly later in his life, he seemed willing to be outspoken in a way that he just couldn't be as a justice. I mean, he said Brett Kavanaugh's behavior during the Senate hearing made him unqualified to be on the high court. He said President Trump was exercising powers that really didn't belong to him. So, what did that say about him — do you think — later in his life?
AW: When you've lived a life for 99 years, you've seen a lot. And he saw this as an extraordinary time. I think it's worth it for us to take a moment and consider that — Things are happening that have never happened before, and I think he was concerned. He was very concerned that there were many things being uprooted and changed and not necessarily for the better. That's what I think drove him to weigh in.
DF: I wonder in that way what he thought about the way the court seems to be evolving these days to be a more partisan institution. He was one of the dissenters in the Bush v. Gore decision and he said that one of the losers in that case, and this is how he put it was “the confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” What did he think about the court now do you think?
AW: Well, I saw him in May, and we did not talk too much about where the court was or what was happening. I think, though, like many towards the end of the term, we've been a bit surprised by some of the mixed results from this past term. I think the court is undergoing a very important test. It's a very important test of what the nature of the court will be for the next 50 years. I believe the Chief Justice understands this more than anyone else. So, I think we should have confidence in what that institution has been and can be into the future. I'm seeing some very promising signs of it continuing as the institution I know.
DF: [It] does make me wonder what kind of advice Stevens would have for Chief Justice Roberts and trying to preserve the reputation of the court.
AW: Chief Justice Roberts clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist, and of the people at the court that Justice Stevens was close to he was very close to Chief Justice Rehnquist. I think he would hope that Roberts would continue in that model of sort of shepherding and watching over the court and understanding that his stewardship of the court right now is so important for the nation for the country and for the world.
DF: I hope you don't mind me mentioning something that you said in an email to me today about his passing. You said that he made the world a better place. What did you mean?
AW: I think we're all better because Justice Stevens spent time thinking long and hard about what the impact of the law would be on individuals … [crying] I almost made it … He cared deeply that people — who were underrepresented, who didn't have a voice, who are often in difficult circumstances — would be heard. And one of the most important lessons for me was that he saw being a lawyer was a job that was committed to public service. We were we are public servants. We need to make society and our country a better place for people.
DF: This may lighten here things finally. I really wanted to ask: did he always wear the bow tie?
AW: Yes, he did. And in fact, he was so quick at tying that tie that when he would run in from his tennis match on Tuesday mornings — because he had to be on the bench by 10, and I'm telling you he cut it close every time — he could tie it without looking even when his fingers got so arthritic, and that bow tie was tied as he was running down to the bench.