EXCLUSIVE: Supreme Court Justice Stevens Remembers President Ford

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Today Justice John Paul Stevens remembered the president who nominated him to the Supreme Court more than three decades ago, a decision that changed Stevens' life and the makeup of the Court.

In his only network TV interview, Stevens recalled meeting President Ford for the first time. "My two very firm impressions from that meeting were, one, he was a fine lawyer; and two, he was the kind of person I would really like to have as a friend, because you like him right away."

Nominating Stevens is one of Ford's most enduring legacies. Although Stevens is a maverick thinker who has proved to be surprisingly liberal and has kept the Court from moving further to the right, the justice said today he still considered himself a conservative.

"I don't really think I've changed. I think there have been a lot of changes in the Court," said the 86-year-old justice. "I can see myself as a conservative, to tell you the truth, a judicial conservative."

In a tribute last year, Ford praised the independent Stevens and said he was "prepared to allow history's judgment of my term in office" to rest exclusively on the nomination.

Ford said he agreed with Stevens' views on the separation of church and state, and on requiring rigorous procedural safeguards for criminal defendants.

Ford nominated Stevens to the Supreme Court in 1975, when he was a Chicago-based federal appeals court judge, to replace liberal giant William O. Douglas.

Douglas had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1974, and he submitted his resignation letter to Ford the next year with great reluctance -- and only after concerned colleagues on the Court had urged him to do so.

Ford vs. Douglas

Ironically, Ford had tried to get Douglas off the Court five years earlier when, as House minority leader, Ford led the call for Douglas' impeachment, largely because of his liberal ideology and sensational personal life.

Douglas had raised eyebrows in Washington for years, and he'd just married his fourth wife, who was 44 years his junior.

Douglas' retirement was a chance for historic change on the Court, because Ford could replace him with a solid conservative. He instead tapped Stevens at the urging of his attorney general, former University of Chicago Law School dean Ed Levi.

At the time, other Justice Department officials had been pushing a different nominee: a young Robert Bork, who had been President Nixon's solicitor general and had represented the United States in the Supreme Court.

But Bork was seen as too controversial in those post-Watergate years, having carried out Nixon's orders to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

The Stevens Choice

Stevens was above reproach. He had even served as counsel to a special commission that had investigated ethics complaints against members of the Illinois Supreme Court. Stevens has said he believed his work on the commission caught the attention of administration officials, who were looking for a nominee with sterling credentials and no ethical problems.

Stevens was confirmed in a 98 to 0 vote. Asked if he believed he would be confirmed unanimously today, he said, "probably not." He said the nomination process is different today than in his day, because it's televised. "There's much more time taken up by the senators in explaining how important the hearings are than finding out what the nominee has to say in answer to your question."

Ford's decision to nominate Stevens over better-known conservative favorites like Bork shaped the direction of the closely divided Court -- and, by extension, the country. Stevens has sided with a five-bloc liberal majority to reject abortion regulations, uphold affirmative action programs, denounce religion in the public sphere, and demand greater protections for criminal defendants.

Stevens' Fingerprint on the Court

Stevens also wrote a bitter dissent in Bush v. Gore, harshly criticizing the Court's decision to stop the Florida recount in the contested 2000 presidential race. Stevens said he feared the decision, which handed the presidency to George W. Bush, had damaged the Court and undermined the public's confidence in it.

Stevens is now the oldest member of the Court, and observers have speculated for years that he is on the verge of retirement. His retirement would set off an enormous battle, because it would give President Bush another opportunity to put a more conservative stamp on the Court.

But Stevens shows no outward signs of slowing down. He has said he would remain on the bench until he no longer writes the first drafts of his opinions. He seems as engaged as ever in the Court's business, peppering lawyers with questions at oral arguments and writing opinions designed to draw support from other justices.

The Stevens Legacy

Last year Ford praised Stevens in connection with a symposium at Fordham University Law School to celebrate Stevens' 30th year on the Court.

Ford said in a letter to the school's dean that Stevens had "served his nation well, at all times carrying out his judicial duties with dignity, intellect and without partisan political concerns."

"Justice Stevens has made me, and our fellow citizens, proud of my three-decade-old decision to appoint him to the Supreme Court," Ford wrote.

Stevens had the letter framed, and it now hangs in his chambers.

And how does the justice want history to judge him?

"I suppose on the basis of the opinions I've written," he said. "There's an awful lot of them. They'd have to pick and choose among them. But you leave -- you know, you leave your record on what you had to say over the years."

ABC News' producer Howard Rosenberg contributed to this report

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