NPR logo Stevens' Key Decisions On The Supreme Court

Stevens' Key Decisions On The Supreme Court

Justice John Paul Stevens authored some of the Supreme Court's most complex and important decisions. Though he often brought justices together to form unexpected majorities on a wide range of legal issues, he also dissented from the majority's rulings more frequently than any other justice.

Over the years, Stevens authored some 400 majority opinions for the court on almost every issue imaginable. Here, a sampling, by no means comprehensive, of some of Stevens' key opinions — in the majority and in dissent.

In The Majority

Clinton v. Paula Jones: In 1997, Stevens wrote the opinion for a unanimous court that refused to postpone Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton.

In the more than 200-year history of the Republic, only three sitting Presidents have been subjected to suits for their private actions. ... As for the case at hand, if properly managed by the District Court, it appears to us highly unlikely to occupy any substantial amount of petitioner's time.

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Rasul v. Bush: In 2004, Stevens wrote for a 6-to-3 majority that detainees held at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have the right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.

In the end, the answer to the question presented is clear. Petitioners contend that they are being held in federal custody in violation of the laws of the United States. No party questions the District Court's jurisdiction over petitioners' custodians.

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Gonzales v. Raich: In 2005, the court ruled that federal anti-drug laws trump state medical marijuana laws. In announcing the majority opinion from the bench, Stevens said the case was "extremely troublesome" because medical marijuana users had "such a strong showing that they will suffer irreparable harm" if denied use of the drug for medicinal purposes.

But the question before us is ... whether the government has the power to prohibit respondents' activities. ... The Supremacy Clause unambiguously provides that if there is any conflict between federal and state law, federal law shall prevail.

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Hamdan v. Rumsfeld: In 2006 the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that President Bush overstepped his authority in ordering military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees. The court ruled that the tribunals violate U.S. laws and the international Geneva Conventions. Writing for the majority, Stevens said:

In undertaking to try Hamdan and subject him to criminal punishment, the Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law that prevails in this jurisdiction.

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In Dissent

Texas v. Johnson: In 1989, the high court struck down 5-4 a Texas law that punished burning the American flag. In his dissent, Stevens wrote:

A country's flag is a symbol of more than nationhood and national unity. It also signifies the ideas that characterize the society that has chosen that emblem, as well as the special history that has animated the growth and power of those ideas.

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Bush v. Gore: In 2000, the Supreme Court ordered that Florida stop recounting ballots in the disputed presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. This effectively removed the case from the Florida state courts, where vote-count cases are traditionally resolved, and Stevens bitterly objected. The ruling effectively ended the dispute in Bush's favor.

Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as impartial guardian of the rule of law.

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Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District No. 1 et. al.: The court ruled 5-4 that schools in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., cannot use race to determine which public school students are assigned to. Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion in this 2007 decision:

It is my firm conviction that no Member of the Court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today's decision.

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Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission: Earlier this year, the 5-4 majority threw out a 100-year-old ban on corporate spending to support candidates for office. The ruling reversed decades of Supreme Court decisions upholding the prohibition. Stevens argued in the minority:

The rule announced today, that Congress must treat corporations like human speakers in the political realm, represents a radical change in the law. The court's decision is at war with the views of generations of Americans.

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