With the death last week of former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, America lost one of its giants of jurisprudence. Serving from 1975 to 2010, Stevens was the third-longest-serving justice in the history of the Supreme Court.
A look at the Supreme Court tenure of Justice Stevens provides a road map of the shift of American political culture from centrist to the hard-right reality we live in today.
When Stevens was appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1975, two years after the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal across the U.S., there was not a single question in his confirmation hearings about the decision, or about abortion at all. It just wasn’t that important to most Americans at that time.
At the time of his appointment, Stevens was a registered Republican, and was considered to be “moderately conservative.” Public perception of him changed dramatically over his tenure, and at the time of his retirement, he was considered, by today’s Republicans anyway, the most liberal justice on the bench.
Much of that can be attributed to the takeover of a large part of the Republican Party by the evangelical Christian movement.
Barry Goldwater, the first (unsuccessful) nominee for the presidency by the John Birch Society/crazy wing of the party, said of the evangelicals, “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”
Goldwater lost, but, knowing he needed them to get over the hump, Ronald Reagan, and the billionaires who controlled the Bircher/crazies wing, invited the evangelicals into the party to win his election. Abortion then took a front-and-center position in the party’s philosophy, pushing it, and the country, ever further to the right.
Stevens remained rock steady in his “moderately conservative” approach to jurisprudence, as the country moved evermore solidly to the right. The fact that he was considered at his retirement the most liberal of the justices is far more indicative of the change in the country than it is of any change in his positions or judicial temperament.
Regardless of one’s views of Stevens’ jurisprudence, the country is a lesser place for his loss.
— White, a retired fire services chief in South Florida, lives in Orange City. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.