Feature

Author of the week: John Paul Stevens

In Five Chiefs, the former Supreme Court Justice gives his opinion of the five chief justices he knew personally.

Even for a Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens had a reputation for being tight-lipped, said Adam Liptak in The New York Times. Now that he’s no longer writing court opinions, the 91-year-old, who retired in June 2010 after 35 years on the court, seems to have decided it’s okay to air his thoughts more freely. His new book, Five Chiefs, offers Stevens’s takes on the five chief justices he knew personally, including the three he served with. Though the book isn’t dishy, it is sometimes blunt. Chief Justice Warren Burger, who led the court from 1969 to 1986, receives the roughest treatment. “I think he was just not as careful a scholar as he should have been,” Stevens says. “He didn’t do a careful job of keeping track of how everyone voted and the reasons why.”

Stevens is more generous in his assessment of current Chief Justice John Roberts, said Nina Totenberg in NPR.org. Though Roberts was often an ideological adversary, Stevens praises the way he manages the court. “He’s thoroughly prepared. He’s very fair in his statement of the case, and he lets everyone have a say.” Stevens adds, “He didn’t put stripes on his robe”—a reference to the bling that William Rehnquist added to the sleeves of his court attire when he became chief justice. Not all the humor in the court was catty. Occasionally, the phone would ring when the justices were in conference, which could only happen if the caller misdialed. Says Stevens: “Byron White would answer and say, ‘This is Joe’s Bar.’”

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