Justice Stevens' memoir: Modest tone but pointed critiques

WASHINGTON -- For his nearly 35 years on the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens was never a scene stealer. As he gravitated toward the left, he was overshadowed by prominent liberals such as William Brennan. Later, when he became the senior justice on the left and controlled the assignment of opinions, he often gave important cases to key colleagues.

Stevens' new memoir has a similarly modest tone, but between the lines are some strong assertions, notably criticism of his former colleague Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who presided over the court from 1986-2005.

Stevens' observations also serve as a reminder, as the presidential season heats up, of how a single new justice can make the difference in the law of the land. Stevens writes that the 1991 retirement of liberal Thurgood Marshall and President George H.W. Bush's choice of conservative Clarence Thomas to succeed him "may well have been the most significant judicial event" of Rehnquist's tenure as chief justice.

Among the strongest criticisms in Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir are Stevens' objections to Rehnquist's positions against criminal defendants and decisions weakening the states' duty to comply with federal law. Stevens refers to Rehnquist opinions as "abysmal" and "simply wrong."

Throughout the 1990s, Stevens was in dissent as a narrow five-justice majority cut back on people's ability to sue states to enforce individual rights, for example, to obtain overtime wages due under federal labor law.

"Like the gold stripes on his robes," Stevens observes in his book, "Chief Justice Rehnquist's writing about (state) sovereignty was ostentatious and more reflective of the ancient British monarchy than our modern republic."

In a recent interview with USA TODAY, Stevens acknowledged that he was tough on Rehnquist, a fellow Midwesterner and Republican appointee who he counted as a friend. "He deserves it," Stevens said flatly.

He said he did not think Rehnquist would have been surprised at his criticism. "I don't think there is anything in there that I didn't say to him personally," said Stevens, who retired last year and was succeeded by Elena Kagan. Rehnquist died in September 2005.

The switch of Thomas for Marshall transformed the court, Stevens said, including on civil rights, federal authority over the states and gun control. He points to a narrow majority's 1997 invalidation of a requirement in the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that local police make background checks of prospective buyers of handguns.

At the time of that 1997 decision, Stevens' referred in his dissent to the importance of national responses to local emergencies, and he added in his book, "I often wonder whether the tragic events of 9/11 have given members of the majority any second thoughts about the wisdom of their decision."

In the interview, Stevens said, "On all the key cases, where Clarence was one of the five (to make the majority), Thurgood surely would have voted the other way. That was the most significant thing that happened to the court during that period."

Stevens also acknowledged that he went relatively easy in his book on current Chief Justice John Roberts. "He's a young man and he has a long way to go," said Stevens, 91, of Roberts, 56.