‘Pragmatic populist’ retires: Former clerk reflects on Stevens and the Supreme Court (VIDEO)

“The retirement announcement of Justice John Paul Stevens does not come as a big surprise, but it is still a sad day,” says Gregory P. Magarian, JD, former Stevens clerk and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. “The Supreme Court is losing a great jurist and a great man.”


Magarian calls Stevens a “pragmatic populist” because of the way he approached his decisions with the court.“Stevens always has been very focused on what a Supreme Court decision is going to do to an ordinary person,” he says. “He has never written an opinion just to make a point or put on a show.”

Magarian says that while Stevens is quickly labeled as a liberal, “I don’t think he’s driven by an underlying political philosophy that is anything more specific than humanism.”

When Stevens first joined the court, he was a “junior” justice for quite a while, but, by 1994, with the retirement of Justice Harry Blackmun, he came into his own as a leader of the liberal wing of the court.

“Stevens’ practical affect has been profound, especially over the latter half of his tenure,” Magarian says.


Magarian’s comments on a selection of Stevens’ landmark cases:

• U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton (1995). “The court, in a very heated 5-4 opinion, said that states could not set term limits for national legislators, a major political issue at the time,” Magarian says. “This decision was a major statement about federalism and national unity.”

• Reno v. ACLU (1997). “Stevens wrote the majority opinion for this landmark Internet free speech case,” he says. “This still stands as the cornerstone of the federal judiciary’s approach to speech on the Internet. It’s a serious slap-down to any effort to regulate or constrain discourse on the Web.”

• Bush v. Gore (2000). “Stevens, out of all of the dissenters, managed to come out of the process with the most emphatic denunciation of what the court was doing,” he says.

• McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003). “Stevens co-authored with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor a significant opinion on campaign finance reform, which upheld the major elements of the McCain-Feingold Act,” Magarian says. “This opinion is being dismantled by the current court, so its influence is waning, but I think that pendulum will swing the other way once again and Stevens’ opinion will be the philosophical template for a return to greater allowance for campaign finance regulation.”

Magarian says that it was a joy working for Stevens.

“He was incredibly busy and powerful, but he never threw his weight around and always had time for the clerks. Seeing someone at that level do things in the right way makes you want to follow his example in your own career,” Magarian says.

Editor’s note: Magarian is available for phone, e-mail and broadcast interviews. Washington University has VYVX and ISDN lines available free for news interviews.

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