Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Eminent Arlingtonian John Paul Stevens brought down the house. The unassuming retired Supreme Court justice wowed Arlington’s Committee of 100 last Wednesday with wit and sportstalk on top of the expected legal insight.

Freed to speak his mind at age 93, Stevens also hazarded predictions on the high court’s next moves.

Retired Arlington circuit Judge Paul Sheridan introduced Stevens as “one of the judicial giants,” the court’s third longest-serving member (1975-2010). “There is documentation he still has the top grade point average in the history of the Northwestern University Law School,” the advance man said. “His only known flaw: when he plays Trivial Pursuit, he’s weak on TV and movie stars.”

Stevens verified a few legends from the sports world. Yes, he knew Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive portrayed in the current film “42” who brought up pioneer Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball. He also interviewed Ty Cobb while researching baseball economics.

Most memorably, he did witness, at age 12, Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield stands during the 1932 World Series in Wrigley Field and placing a home run right where he promised to. Decades later, when the Chicago Cubs invited Stevens to throw out the first pitch, “I was a hero to my grandchildren,” he said, “which is more important than these other things.”

Memories the justice volunteered included several from his 1975 confirmation hearing after having been named by President Ford. As the first nominee to undergo a new tradition of personal visits with senators, Stevens recalled that Barry Goldwater promised his vote because the two shared enthusiasm for airplanes. Strom Thurmond knew not to ask how Stevens would vote on the death penalty —“It’s not proper to probe candidates’ views, one requirement being to keep an open mind until you hear the parties and read their briefs,” Stevens said. But Thurmond conveyed his support for capital punishment, and at a later meeting, Ted Kennedy conveyed his opposite view.

Stevens told of a bellhop in Washington’s Mayflower Hotel who cornered the puzzled nominee in the elevator to relay the thrilling news that he had spotted the new Supreme Court justice having breakfast. The nominee happily confirmed it.

To audience questions audience, Stevens opined that:

— the high court needs more diversity, legislative and military experience and trial lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall;

–the Bush v. Gore case resolving the 2000 election “should have been rethought,” as suggested recently by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. “It was nonsense to apply an equal protection argument to hanging chads versus dimpled chads when the voter’s intention for both was clear”;

–the 2010 Citizens United decision on campaign spending was “incorrect,” but “don’t hold your breath for the court to change it”;

–the 2012 decision mostly upholding Obamacare vindicated his confidence in Chief Justice John Roberts’ “integrity and independence” in following the law even when it’s not his policy choice;

–in the coming twin rulings on same-sex marriage, he guesses, the court will dismiss the California challenge for lacking jurisdiction and strike down the Defense of Marriage Act as unfair tax policy.

Asked by state Del. Patrick Hope whether he backs mandatory retirement for judges, Stevens said people 70 and older can still contribute. He would have loved to keep working but realized during Citizens United he was having trouble “articulating.”