Retired Justice Stevens On The Conservative Supreme Court At 99, the retired Supreme Court justice — author of The Making of a Justice — says "the world is changing much faster than I anticipated. " And it's changing, he says, "for the worse."
NPR logo

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens Talks History, His New Book And Ping-Pong

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/717596511/722051908" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Retired Justice John Paul Stevens Talks History, His New Book And Ping-Pong

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens Talks History, His New Book And Ping-Pong

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/717596511/722051908" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NOEL KING, HOST:

And now a story that takes the long view - the very long view. In 2010, at the age of 90, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens retired after 35 years on the nation's highest court. Since then he's been busy writing lots of articles. And now he's written a third book titled "The Making Of A Justice."

NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reached him at his condo in Florida.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In the past when I've interviewed Justice Stevens, he was in chambers, often without a jacket but always wearing his signature bow tie.

JOHN PAUL STEVENS: I'm much more casual.

TOTENBERG: (Laughter).

STEVENS: I just played Ping-Pong. I'm in my pingpong outfit.

TOTENBERG: To be precise, a red, short-sleeved shirt, blue plaid Bermuda shorts, athletic socks and running shoes. John Paul Stevens may be 99, but he's no slacker.

STEVENS: I play Ping-Pong a couple of times a week. Another day a week I play nine holes of golf. I don't hit the ball very far, but at least I can hit it.

TOTENBERG: He still swims in the ocean with the aid of neighbors who help him in and out of the waves, and he plays bridge two or three times a week. His memoir starts at age 5 when, though small of stature, he passed the kindergarten physical test with flying colors but flunked the mental test.

The book winds through his years growing up, including the arrest and eventual exoneration of his father on criminal charges, his years as a Navy codebreaker in the Pacific theater during World War II and his law career - from attending Northwestern on the GI Bill to life as a litigator and lower court judge. But the bulk of the book is about Stevens' life on the Supreme Court, what happened each term and what he thought about it.

So this book is your last hurrah as an author. What do you want to say?

STEVENS: Well, it's hard to summarize everything in just a few words. But part of what I would say is the world is changing much faster than I anticipated.

TOTENBERG: Is it changing for the better or worse?

STEVENS: For the worse.

TOTENBERG: Why is it worse? Though he's no longer a sitting justice, Stevens answers as if he still were on the court.

STEVENS: Well, in my job I avoid political commentary, but I am offended by much that the leaders of our country are engaged in now.

TOTENBERG: In his last years on the Supreme Court, Stevens was publicly worried about the court's rightward tilt. But now off the court, he's even more worried. He sees a newly constituted and more aggressive conservative court majority acting in a, quote, "less neutral fashion." For example, he dissented fiercely in 2008 when the court ruled for the first time that the Second Amendment guarantees a right to own a gun.

STEVENS: Its analysis of the history and the reasons for the amendment was dead wrong.

TOTENBERG: Still, as Stevens discloses in his book, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who provided the fifth and decisive vote in the case, insisted that the decision include language protecting reasonable gun regulations. Kennedy, however, retired last June, to be replaced by Brett Kavanaugh, who, as a lower court judge, viewed as unconstitutional every major gun regulation that came before him.

So what hope, if any, do you have for the court upholding serious gun regulation were it to pass?

STEVENS: I suppose the odds are not very favorable now.

TOTENBERG: Stevens is equally critical of the court's recent decisions - striking down all manner of campaign finance regulations and the gutting of voting rights legislation.

Judicial doctrine does change over time. But do you think that the current court is taking a radical turn to the right?

STEVENS: Yes, I really do. I think some of the decisions really are quite wrong, and they're quite contrary to the public interest.

TOTENBERG: Every member of the court, not just the chief justice, goes around saying, we are not politicians; we're judges. But it gets harder and harder for some people to believe that.

STEVENS: Well, it's harder and harder to believe. But there's still some hope that it won't be totally that way. But it is true that it seems to be more ideological than it's been since the 1930s.

TOTENBERG: Stevens was appointed to the court by President Ford in 1975. He was considered a moderate conservative then. But by the time he retired in 2010, he was considered the court's most liberal justice. He has consistently maintained that for the most part, he didn't change. The change was in the composition of the court. Indeed, in the years that followed his appointment, increasingly conservative Republican presidents appointed increasingly conservative justices. And the Republican appointments outnumbered the Democratic appointments by more than 2 to 1.

Over the last two decades, Republican presidents have prided themselves on appointing judges who call themselves originalists. So I asked Justice Stevens, what does he call himself? If not an originalist, what is he? His answer returns to the beginning of our interview.

STEVENS: I'm a person who plays Ping-Pong once in awhile (laughter).

TOTENBERG: So is he the condo champion?

STEVENS: I'm better than anybody at my age. If you can find anybody at my age that plays, I'll challenge them.

TOTENBERG: The competitive spirit lives on in John Paul Stevens.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.