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Justice Stevens: ‘Have everybody know that your word is good’

Published: February 11th, 2013

Category: Feature


Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens speaks with UF Law professors Kenneth Nunn, John Stinneford and Danaya Wright during the Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture Series held in the Marcia Whitney Schott Courtyard on Tuesday. (Photo by Elise Giordano)

At 92, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has a lifetime of experience and legal wisdom to impart, which he readily did Tuesday at UF Law. Stevens was welcomed for the second time in five years as the Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecturer. Stevens spoke at the inaugural Criser Lecture at UF Law in 2008.

The conversation was facilitated by UF Law Professors Kenneth Nunn, John Stinneford and Danaya Wright. Stevens addressed a wide variety of topics, including proportionality in sentencing, interpreting history, changing technology, and experiences and court opinions from his years as a justice.

“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.”

One of the cases Stevens addressed in particular was 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 cited cases in administrative law.

“You don’t – at the time you’re working on a case – always appreciate what its long-run impact will be,” Stevens said.

Stinneford said “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.”

Stevens also addressed his legacy as a Supreme Court justice when Nunn suggested that his opinions throughout the years seemed to grow more liberal.

“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 each Supreme Court appointment beginning with his own was more conservative than his or her predecessor.

Wright said of spending time with Stevens before and after the lecture that he was delightful, modest and interesting.

“He told stories of his days before the court and he remembered almost all the cases we talked about quite well,” she said. “I did manage to dredge up a case he had only signed onto the majority opinion on, and he didn’t remember it very well.”

Stevens also imparted some advice for current 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.”

In closing, 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,” he 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 (B.A. 1943, LL.B. 1946) of Palm Beach, Fla., as a tribute to his fellow UF Law alumnus, former UF President Marshall Criser (JD 51). The goal of the speaker series is to host prestigious national and international speakers every year on topics of particular interest to law students. Past speakers have included Justice Clarence Thomas and former ABA President Stephen N. Zack (JD 71).

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