By Bill Barnhart, Author, John Paul Stevens: An Independent Life
When World War II ended, Navy Reserve Lieutenant John P. Stevens in Pearl Harbor received a letter from his brother Jim, a lawyer in Chicago. He urged his younger brother, who had begun graduate studies in English literature before the war, to consider law as a profession. John, who had married shortly after enlisting on December 6, 1941, agreed. The rest, as they say, is history.
But not exactly. Justice Stevens has never written any type of memoir or anything else about his background or history for general public consumption. In certain court opinions and speeches to professional groups, he has referred to his past and his family's past, but he is not one to dwell on the past. What is your favorite case, I once foolishly asked him. "The one I'm working on now," he replied.
My research associate and partner, Gene Schlickman, a retired Illinois legislator, proposed that we undertake a biography of Stevens not long after we published a biography of a man with whom Stevens served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, Kerner: The Conflict of Intangible Rights. Otto Kerner had been a popular governor of Illinois during the 1960s and a President Lyndon B. Johnson appointee to the Seventh Circuit. While on the federal bench, Kerner was indicted, convicted and imprisoned, without the benefit of an impeachment hearing, for activities as governor.
Like Kerner, Stevens's roots were in Chicago - a fact that appealed to Gene and me as students of Chicago history and politics. Like Kerner, Stevens's father was a prominent Chicagoan; Kerner's father was a noted judge and state attorney general, whereas Stevens's father was a well-known businessman.
And like Kerner, Stevens emerged onto the national stage thanks to a brief but onminous remark. The Kerner Commission on urban riots in the 1960s concluded, "Our nation is moving toward two societies -- one black, one white -- separate and unequal." In his dissent from the Supreme Court's ruling that decided the 2000 president election in favor of George W. Bush, Stevens employed a different rhetorical juxtaposition: "Although we may never know with certainty the identity of the winner of this year's Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."
With that, we began -- a journalist and a veteran of Illinois politics. Just who was this "impartial guardian of the rule of law" -- words that President Obama recently quoted back to Stevens to mark the Justice's retirement announcement?
When we informed Justice Stevens of our plan in 2002, he advised us that we would not make any money on such a venture. For proof, he cited an excellent but under-appreciated book about an important episode in Stevens's life, Illinois Justice: The Scandal of 1969 and the Rise of John Paul Stevens by Kenneth A. Manaster of the Santa Clara University School of Law.
Nonetheless, we persevered. Stevens's father, Ernest, had left personal and business papers to the Chicago History Museum -- the source of most of the family background in our book. The museum permitted me to pour over the 1,900 banker's boxes of documents left to the museum by former U.S. Senator Charles H. Percy of Illinois. The Percy Senatorial Papers were not officially open to the public. They had never been properly organized and had barely been touched since they left Percy's office in 1984. I suspected that the Percy material could provide a narrative of how Stevens, a successful but politically inactive lawyer in Chicago, found himself on the Seventh Circuit bench in 1970. A summer in a windowless warehouse with no air conditioning, assisted greatly by museum archivists Benn Joseph and Jennifer Fowle, gave me the story I wanted.
Unfortunately, my interest in, and Gene's familiarity with Chicago political history from the time of Senators Percy and Everett M. Dirksen did not make the sale to major publishers. To find a worthy commercial publisher, Gene and I hired a New York literary agent, to no avail. Then, our early efforts were rejected by two major academic publishers.
Our notion that a biography of a sitting Supreme Court justice would automatically find an audience was false. Rather, the publishing world seemed more interested in us and our "platform" (read, our celebrity status), which was nil. Moreover, I was told that "inside" details about the current work of the Court, no matter how dubious or self-serving for the anonymous sources providing them, were essential. We used no unattributed source material. Stevens had declined to sit for long interviews, which might have helped promote the book.
Still, I learned from our critics. I realized that I must explain Stevens to a contemporary reader by looking at his role on the Court and the substance of his written opinions. Personal background from his formative years in Chicago, which Stevens left in 1976, was insufficient. During this re-evaluation period, I was lucky to meet J. Alex Schwartz, director of Northern Illinois University Press. After Gene and I had lunch with NIU Press editor Sara Hoerdeman in 2008, we knew we had found a home for our project. On the day Justice Stevens announced his retirement, Susan Swain of Book TV on C-Span2 told Hoerdeman at a book publishers' convention in Washington, D.C., "You might be one of the happiest publishers here."
Two disparate sources that assisted me in telling stories about Stevens as a justice were the papers of Justice Harry A. Blackmun at the Library of Congress and a bobblehead doll of Justice Stevens available through The Green Bag, "an entertaining journal of law," and given to me by a sympathetic Professor Dennis J. Hutchinson of the University of Chicago Law School and author of The Man Who Once Was Whizzer White: A Portrait of Justice Byron R. White. The Blackmun papers contain a wealth of juicy memo traffic between Supreme Court law clerks. The bobblehead, which in its humorous way highlights important Stevens opinions, gave me a simple device to introduce cases that might not otherwise appeal to a general audience.
A couple of years ago, Justice Stevens wrote to me that he probably wouldn't live long enough to critique this book. Gene and I are fortunate to have the book appear as Stevens prepares to retire. We look forward to his critique.