John Paul Stevens: Okay to Consider Politics in Retirement Decision

ABC's Adam Teicholz reports:

In an interview with George Stephanopoulos airing today on "This Week," retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens revealed that he believes it is appropriate for justices to take "politics" into account in deciding when to retire.

"I think so… It's an appropriate thing to think about your successor, not only in this job," Stevens said on whether to take into account which president will choose a successor. "I'm just finishing the book by former Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates. He thought a lot about his successor, too. If you're interested in the job and in the kind of work that's done, you have to have an interest in who's going to fill your shoes."

Asked by Stephanopoulos how he would respond if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, currently the oldest member of the Court, approached him for advice on when to retire, Stevens said, "I'd say she doesn't need my advice."

"She did ask my advice when she became the senior associate justice," Stevens added. "And basically, I gave her that same answer. 'Ruth, you're fully capable of handling everything that comes along.'" (the senior associate justice post is technically held by Justice Antonin Scalia, in order of year of appointment, though Justice Ginsburg is three years older than her conservative colleague).

In a portion of the interview not aired, Stevens also revealed that regarding aging and the stamina and intellectual ability to do one's job on the Court, he had an arrangement with retired Justice David Souter that Souter would tell Stevens when it was time to go. (In the end, Souter retired first.)

In the wide-ranging interview, Stevens also discussed gun control and political redistricting in the context of his new book, "Six Amendments." The book, which has come under attack by conservative legal thinkers, proposes six changes that Stevens believes would bring the Constitution more in line both with the founders' intentions, and with the exigencies of modern governance.

The most controversial of his proposals has proved to be the amendment that would add five words to the Second Amendment, qualifying the right to bear arms. The Second Amendment now reads "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Justice Stevens would have it read, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed."

The last state militia was disbanded in 1866, so no one would be covered by Stevens' new amendment. In other words, the government would face no restrictions in its ability to ban or regulate the ownership or use of guns.

Stevens, however, does not believe that that would lead legislatures to ban guns, because there is a strong political constituency for gun ownership in the U.S.

"The likelihood of [widespread outlawing of firearms] is quite remote," he says, because the gun lobby "is able to take care of itself in the democratic debates which would continue with my amendment." His new language "would merely prevent arguments being made that Congress doesn't have the power to do what they think is in the best public interest," Stevens added.

The justice also argued that the framers of the Constitution had no intention of providing for an individual right to bear arms in the Second Amendment in the first place, despite the conclusion to the contrary of a majority of the Supreme Court in 2008's District of Columbia v. Heller.

"There was a fear among the original framers that the federal government would be so strong that they might destroy the state militias," according to Stevens, and combating that prospect, he argues, was the framers' sole purpose in drafting this much-debated amendment. The new language, in his view, would simply return the law to what the founders intended.

The retired justice, on the federal bench for 40 years and widely seen as one of the intellectual leaders of the American judiciary, displayed some of his characteristic Midwestern modesty when asked by Stephanopoulos about his legacy. It was a "really awfully hard" question, judged the justice.

"Because it's a series of individual important events," he explained. "And some are terribly disappointing. And some are terribly gratifying. And you mix them all together. It's really hard to pass judgment on the entirety. All I can say is I did the best I could, and I didn't do well enough on many occasions."

NOTE: The headline and content of this post has been updated.

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