I am more than a little late to serve as an early reviewer for Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir, by John Paul Stevens, which I obtained based upon that commitment back in 2011. Still, guilt eventually inspired me to read it through, after much procrastination and several false starts. Now that I finally did my duty, albeit a long overdue one, I really do not know what to make of this odd little book.
Five Chiefs seems intended as a kind of intimate history of the Supreme Court during the tenure of Justice John Paul Stevens, who served a lengthy term on the bench from his appointment by President Gerald Ford in 1975 until his retirement in 2010. After a whirlwind chapter that takes the reader through the key moments in the history of the Supreme Court by way of its first twelve chief justices, the bulk of the rest of the book – reflecting the title – is structured by chapters named for each of the five Chief Justices that Stevens served with on the Court: Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts. I used the word “intended” deliberately in the first sentence of this paragraph, for it is never really clear what this book is supposed to be. It is too brief for a history of the Supreme Court, too superficial for a study of constitutional law, too Spartan to pretend to be biographical of the named justices, and too parsimonious with detail to be an autobiography. Moreover, if it is really a memoir, as the subtitle insists, then it is a very lean one indeed.
To my mind, Five Chiefs is a rather lightweight but fond anecdotal accounting of the people and events encountered in the three and a half decades the author served as an Associate Justice, told in a respectful, collegial style that is friendly both to the Court and to his fellow justices. Yet, here and there the narrative is unexpectedly punctuated with a discussion of critical Court decisions, which while promising at first frequently disappoints, largely because the greater context is conspicuous in its absence. A legal scholar or member of the judicial elite could easily evaluate his comments and the attendant ramifications; for the rest of us there is only Google.
Far more paragraphs and pages are devoted to matters that may seem trivial to the audience, even if they did not to the author, such as the way offices are assigned to members, or even the unfortunate position of a conference table after a meeting room is remodeled. But to be fair it is not all superficial stuff: Stevens is signally affronted when during the Reagan Administration the swearing-in ceremony of justices is relocated from the Supreme Court Building to the White House, which he views as a consequential if symbolic violation of the separation of powers of the three branches of government. Moreover, he is singularly outraged by Reagan’s comments at the investiture of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Stevens sternly notes that: “. . . the president participated with remarks that welcomed his new appointee as a judge who would follow the law rather than make it up. I thought the president’s remarks were both offensive and inappropriate and therefore decided not to attend similar ceremonies at the White House in the future.” [p207] Later in the text, we learn of Stevens’ warm approval when President Obama moves these ceremonies back to their traditional home at the Supreme Court Building.
This slender volume often reveals more by what is not said or what is subtly hinted at. While emphasizing friendships formed, traditions of respect and decorum among the justices, and never abandoning the collegial tone, it is manifestly clear that Stevens silently objects when Rehnquist adds gold stripes to his robe upon promotion to Chief Justice, and he is just as quietly relieved when Roberts desists from that practice. He does make the point that while the various Courts are known to history by the Chief Justices, in fact every time one seat changes hands an entirely new Court is manifested, a critical reminder that each appointment bears great significance. Stevens notes, almost in passing, that much more attention was devoted in confirmation hearings for the nomination of Rehnquist to Chief Justice, a sitting Associate Justice, than to the nomination of Antonin Scalia who took the vacated Rehnquist Associate Justice seat. There is no hint that Stevens objected to Scalia, but it is loudly unsaid that he felt quite differently when the brilliant liberal Thurgood Marshall was replaced by the middling Clarence Thomas, an ultra-conservative whose votes tipped the balance of the Court in a most unfortunate direction. Stevens is clearly distraught not only by rulings that seemed to undo more than a half century of evolving jurisprudence in areas such as civil rights, the death penalty and the Second Amendment, but more significantly by the decision that denied a legitimate electoral recount and thereby made George W. Bush President, as well as the one that delivered what he clearly sees as a wrong turn in campaign financing reform in the since much-maligned Citizens United ruling.
The tenure of John Paul Stevens seems to correspond in some ways to the transformation of the Republican Party from a bigger tent to the almost exclusive province of the right. When Stevens, a solid business-friendly Republican justice was appointed to the bench by the Republican President Gerald Ford, there were plenty of moderate and even liberal Republicans, a brand that has virtually gone extinct. Hardly a political liberal as most would define it, as evidenced by his own votes on the Court, Stevens nevertheless represented a time-honored tradition that cherished the rights of Americans under the law and always put politics in second place to jurisprudence. When asked a few years ago if he still identified as a Republican, Stevens famously declined comment.
Five Chiefs is probably not a book for everyone, and I have to admit I give it less than stellar marks overall, but it contains elements that make me glad I read it. The “Appendix” contains the full text of the United States Constitution and its Amendments, something that clearly defined Stevens’ life and career and something that every American should probably read, especially in these polarized days when what our central founding document truly contains is often wildly misstated. As for Stevens, at this writing he still walks among us at ninety-five years old. His book, warts and all, characterizes a tradition that we should well cherish and a dedication to justice we should well celebrate.