Justice John Paul Stevens and a taste of history at UF Law

At 92, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is a walking, talking history lesson in American jurisprudence. Serving on the court from 1976 through 2010 and before that as a federal judge and antitrust lawyer from Chicago, Stevens has a lifetime of experience and legal wisdom to impart. This he
readily did Feb. 5 in the Marcia Whitney Schott Courtyard of UF Law as the Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecturer.

UF Law Professors Kenneth Nunn, John Stinneford and Danaya Wright engaged Stevens on myriad topics including proportionality in sentencing, applying history to decisions, changing technology, experiences and court opinions from his years as a justice. “You don’t at the time you’re working
on a case always appreciate what its longrun impact will be,” Stevens observed before hundreds seated in the Marcia Whitney Schott Courtyard.

Stevens was speaking of Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. — a case Stevens said he believed to be a routine case in 1984 when he wrote the majority opinion. In the years since, it has become one of the most widely cited cases in administrative law.

Stinneford noted after the talk that Stevens’ experience can serve as a cautionary tale:

“This is a nice reminder that we should take even the mundane events of our lives seriously, as they may turn out to have a bigger impact on our lives than we realize at the time.

“Justice Stevens not only appears to have encyclopedic memory of his decisions during his term on the court, but he remembers his reasons for reaching the conclusions he did and also the countervailing
arguments that might have led him to decide differently,” Stinneford said. “As someone who can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, I found this very impressive.”

Stevens, who also spoke at the inaugural Criser Lecture at UF Law in 2008, addressed his legacy as a Supreme Court justice when Nunn suggested that his opinions seemed to grow more liberal over the years.

“To tell you the truth, I think I’m a good deal more conservative than people often assume because I feel
very strongly that judges should not be deciding certain issues,” he said. “I’m sure I must have changed to a certain extent, but I don’t think I’ve changed a tenth as much as the court in general has changed.”

He said Supreme Court appointees beginning with him were more conservative than their predecessors.

Nunn said one of the most valuable things he learned during Stevens’ visit was just how important the actual facts of a case are for decision making on the Supreme Court.

“Justice Stevens distinguished many of his opinions — his decisions to join the opinion or to dissent —
based on the facts of a particular case before the court,” Nunn said.

For Wright, spending time with Stevens only made it clearer that anyone who has the opportunity to work with a judge, especially a Supreme Court justice,should take advantage of it.

“These people are incredibly smart, thoughtful and legally astute without the big egos and smooth demeanors of politicians,” she said.

Stevens also imparted advice for law students, including the benefits of attaining a clerkship.

“I think it’s really excellent experience, and that’s at all levels, not necessarily appellate court but trial courts too,” he said. “You learn a great deal about how litigation actually works by being in the inside of the process for a year or so.”

Stevens emphasized the importance of studying hard and ultimately having a good reputation as a practicing lawyer.

“It’s very simple and you’ve heard it over and over again: One, study hard and take your work seriously,” Stevens said, “and remember that the most important asset that you’re going to have when you get out in practice is to have everybody in the profession know that your word is good, because that is a critical part of the profession — the integrity of the lawyer — and that’s something you must always keep in mind.”

The Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture Series was created in early 2007 by Lewis Schott (JD 46) of Palm Beach, as a tribute to his fellow UF Law alumnus, former UF President Marshall Criser (JD 51). The series hosts prestigious national and international speakers annually on topics of particular interest to law students. Past speakers have included Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former ABA President Stephen N. Zack (JD 71).