The 'Common Sense and Moral Clarity' of the Supreme Court's Most Left-Wing Justice

Legal reporter Adam Liptak's "Sidebar" legal column summed up what may be the last term of liberal Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, "Stevens Era, Nearing End, Takes On An Edge."

Liptak clearly admires Stevens. The hagiography is not as blatant as the sort former Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse routinely lavished on retiring liberal justices, but Liptak does devote no less than six of his 25 paragraphs simply to transcribing Stevens' pearls of dissenting wisdom.

The Supreme Court announced its big campaign finance decision at 10 in the morning last Thursday. By 10:30 a.m., after Justice Anthony M. Kennedy had offered a brisk summary of the majority opinion and Justice John Paul Stevens labored through a 20-minute rebuttal, a sort of twilight had settled over the courtroom.

It seemed the Stevens era was ending.

After noting his shambling performance while reading his dissent, Liptak seemed to take sides in two liberal rulings: One on the death penalty, the other on civil rights for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, calling them "propelled by common sense and moral clarity."

But there was no mistaking his basic message. "The rule announced today - that Congress must treat corporations exactly like human speakers in the political realm - represents a radical change in the law," he said from the bench. "The court's decision is at war with the views of generations of Americans."

That was the plainspoken style of the last years of Justice Stevens's tenure. In cases involving prisoners held without charge at Guantánamo Bay and the mentally retarded on death row, his version of American justice was propelled by common sense and moral clarity, and it commanded a majority.

He was on the short end of the 2008 decision finding that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to bear arms, and he had mixed success in fighting what he saw as illegitimate justifications for discrimination against African-Americans, women and homosexuals.

Liptak at least accurately placed Stevens on the ideological spectrum:

Justice Stevens is the leader of the court's liberal wing, and its three other members - Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor - all joined his 90-page dissent. They must have been tempted to write separately, as the case was bristling with issues of particular interest to all of them. Instead, they allowed the spotlight to shine solely on Justice Stevens.


Justice Stevens, who served in the Navy during World War II, reached back to those days to show the depth of his outrage at the majority's conclusion that the government may not make legal distinctions based on whether a corporation or a person was doing the speaking.

Notably, Liptak didn't even blink when Stevens in his dissent bizarrely compared the World War II traitor Tokyo Rose to corporations trying to influence politics.