POLITICS

Trump, Kavanaugh, Guns: John Paul Stevens Spoke His Mind

Stevens, who died Tuesday, was unusually candid about political issues after he retired from the Supreme Court.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who died on Tuesday at the age of 99, won’t just be remembered for his lengthy and influential tenure on the nation’s high court — but also the many waves he made after his retirement.

It’s rare for a justice or a former justice to speak candidly about issues that could be perceived as political, but Stevens — who retired in 2010 after 35 years on the Supreme Court — repeatedly bucked this custom in his twilight years, speaking openly on a range of political topics and explicitly criticizing President Donald Trump

Here are some of the more noteworthy ways the retired justice stuck his neck out:

He called for the repeal of the Second Amendment to “make our schoolchildren safer.” 

In an op-ed for The New York Times in 2018, Stevens described the Second Amendment — which refers to a “well regulated militia” and the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” — as a “relic of the 18th century.” Its repeal, Stevens wrote, would “make our schoolchildren safer …  and honor the memories of the many, indeed far too many, victims of recent gun violence.” 

Trump fired off a rebuttal the next day, tweeting that “despite the words” of Stevens, there’s “NO WAY” the Second Amendment would be repealed. 

“We need more Republicans in 2018 and must ALWAYS hold the Supreme Court!” the president added.

He urged the Senate to get moving on the stalled nomination of Merrick Garland.

Speaking with National Law Journal reporter Marcia Coyle in May 2016, two months after then-President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court, Stevens urged the Republican-led Senate to get moving on Garland’s confirmation process.

“Go ahead and hold a hearing,” Stevens said of the Senate’s blockade on Garland’s nomination.

“I’m not aware of any confirmation process that’s been delayed to the extent that this one is,” Stevens said, adding that it was “really unfortunate” that the Supreme Court would be lacking one justice when its next term began.

Garland’s nomination was held in limbo for 293 days ― a record ― and finally expired in January 2017.

He opposed Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Stevens made headlines last October, when he expressed his opposition to Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. 

Though Kavanaugh “had the qualifications” for the job, Stevens said the judge’s behavior at a congressional hearing showed him to be unfit. Kavanaugh defended himself against allegations of sexual assault at the hearing by accusing Democrats of seeking “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.

“His performance in the hearings changed my mind,” Stevens said, according to the Palm Beach Post. “The senators should pay attention to this.”

In May, Stevens told CNN that Kavanaugh was a “good judge” who had done a good job on the Supreme Court so far. He said, however, that he stood by his criticism of Kavanaugh’s nomination. 

“No, that’s really an entirely separate issue,” Stevens said, when asked if he regretted speaking up. 

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have said what I did,” he continued. “But I think his decisions will determine how good a judge he’ll be.”

John Paul Stevens, pictured in 2012.
John Paul Stevens, pictured in 2012.

He called for the death penalty system to be abolished. 

Stevens was once an advocate of the death penalty, voting in 1976 to reinstate the use of capital punishment. Over the course of his career, however, the justice came full circle on the issue.

In 2008, he voted to uphold the constitutionality of a particular method of lethal injection in the case of two death row inmates in Kentucky. But in his opinion, he wrote that the time had come to reconsider “the justification for the death penalty itself.” 

“I have relied on my own experience in reaching the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes,” he wrote. 

After his retirement, Stevens doubled down on this position, writing in a 2014 book that he believed the death penalty to be unconstitutional and called for the rewriting of the Constitution to reflect this. 

He was critical of Trump

Stevens also didn’t shy away from criticizing the president. 

“I think there are things we should be concerned about, there’s no doubt about that,” he told The Wall Street Journal in May, when asked about the state of the country.

“The president is exercising powers that do not really belong to him. I mean, he has to comply with subpoenas and things like that,” Stevens continued.

Speaking to CNN that same month, Stevens said he hoped Trump would not damage the nation’s courts “too much.” Trump, he added, was “getting advice from people who are knowledgeable about judges” ― but, he noted, Trump did not appear to understand the role of the judiciary.

“I think he often speaks about them as Obama judges and other kinds of judges,” Stevens said. “But I think [Chief Justice] John Roberts was dead right when he said that there are only one kind of judge and they’re all working for the federal government.”

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