Pubdate: Thu, 25 Aug 2005
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2005 The New York Times Company
Author: Linda Greenhouse
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


It is not every day that a Supreme Court justice calls his own decisions 
unwise. But with unusual candor, Justice John Paul Stevens did that last 
week in a speech in which he explored the gap that sometimes lies between a 
judge's desire and duty.

Addressing a bar association meeting in Las Vegas, Justice Stevens 
dissected several of the recent term's decisions, including his own 
majority opinions in two of the term's most prominent cases. The outcomes 
were "unwise," he said, but "in each I was convinced that the law compelled 
a result that I would have opposed if I were a legislator."

In one, the eminent domain case that became the term's most controversial 
decision, he said that his majority opinion that upheld the government's 
"taking" of private homes for a commercial development in New London, 
Conn., brought about a result "entirely divorced from my judgment 
concerning the wisdom of the program" that was under constitutional attack.

His own view, Justice Stevens told the Clark County Bar Association, was 
that "the free play of market forces is more likely to produce acceptable 
results in the long run than the best-intentioned plans of public 
officials." But he said that the planned development fit the definition of 
"public use" that, in his view, the Constitution permitted for the exercise 
of eminent domain.

Justice Stevens said he also regretted having to rule in favor of the 
federal government's ability to enforce its narcotics laws and thus trump 
California's medical marijuana initiative. "I have no hesitation in telling 
you that I agree with the policy choice made by the millions of California 
voters," he said. But given the broader stakes for the power of Congress to 
regulate commerce, he added, "our duty to uphold the application of the 
federal statute was pellucidly clear."

The court's press office made the text of his speech available here.

While the substance of his remarks was interesting, so was the timing. The 
85-year-old Justice Stevens, who will observe his 30th anniversary on the 
court this fall, is a savvy observer of the political landscape. It 
certainly did not escape his notice that Supreme Court confirmation 
hearings were looming and that a microscopic examination of the views of 
the nominee, Judge John G. Roberts Jr., was under way.

Perhaps Justice Stevens intended a gentle reminder that no matter what 
views Judge Roberts held as a young lawyer in the Reagan White House, the 
real question was one that only the nominee could answer: not what views he 
holds today, but the impact he would permit those views to have on his work 
as a Supreme Court justice.

While Justice Stevens is the only member of the court to have addressed the 
issue in a speech, others have used their written opinions to acknowledge 
the conflict between a judge's policy preferences and decisions the judge 
may feel forced to render because of legal precedent or judicial philosophy.

In March, for example, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whom Judge Roberts 
would succeed, dissented from the court's opinion that declared 
unconstitutional the execution of those who commit capital murder before 
the age of 18.

"Were my office that of a legislator, rather than a judge, then I, too, 
would be inclined to support legislation setting a minimum age of 18," 
Justice O'Connor wrote in her dissenting opinion in Roper v. Simmons in the 
course of explaining why, in her view, the Constitution did not support 
that outcome.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in providing a fifth vote for the court's 1989 
decision that burning an American flag as a political protest is protected 
by the First Amendment, noted that the decision "exacts its personal toll." 
In his concurring opinion in the case, Texas v. Johnson, Justice Kennedy 
wrote: "The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not 
like. We make them because they are right, right in the sense that the law 
and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result. And so great is 
our commitment to the process that, except in the rare case, we do not 
pause to express distaste for the result, perhaps for fear of undermining a 
valued principle that dictates the decision."

For a justice on the speaking circuit, Justice Stevens gives unusually good 
value. Rather than retreating to the safety of historical anecdotes or 
constitutional platitudes, as some others do, he often talks about what is 
actually on his mind. This month, he went to the American Bar Association's 
annual meeting in his home city, Chicago, and offered some pointed 
criticism of the death penalty.

Sometimes, of course, justices and other judges express themselves at their 
peril, as Justice Antonin Scalia learned after criticizing an appeals court 
decision that barred the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public 
school classrooms. He was obliged to recuse himself a few months later when 
the case reached the Supreme Court.

On the other hand, Justice Scalia's more abstract discussion of his 
jurisprudence, in a book titled "A Matter of Interpretation," has proved a 
steady seller since its publication in 1997.

Next month, his colleague and occasional debating partner, Justice Stephen 
G. Breyer, will offer his own very different views of constitutional 
interpretation in a new book titled "Active Liberty: Interpreting Our 
Democratic Constitution."

Justice Breyer's book is based on the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, 
which he delivered last year at Harvard. Justice Scalia's book was based on 
his lectures in the same series, which he delivered at Princeton in 1995.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Elizabeth Wehrman