Wish Justice John Paul Stevens a happy birthday...


April 24, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

I DIDN'T wish Justice John Paul Stevens a happy birthday Saturday because I wanted to pay my respects to Rep. Morris Udall upon his announcement of retirement.

So, four days late, here's to you, John Paul. Happy 71. I hope you got a lot of bow ties.

Stevens is a rare bird, and not just sartorially. Liberal Democrats say a bedtime prayer for this Republican every night. They want a long life for him. He votes with the liberals on the Supreme Court much of the time.

He is a reliable vote for keeping Roe vs. Wade as is. That's become a symbol for Democrats as the last barricade against the political right. When that goes, the barbarians will be inside the gates.

As long as Justice Stevens is pro-Roe, and as long as liberal Justices Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun continue to support it, and as long as Justice Sandra O'Connor stays at least neutral and won't vote to overturn it, and if -- maybe a big if -- Justice David Souter joins those four in upholding Roe, it will survive.

Justice Stevens is the kind of justice some legal idealists expect but seldom get. He is an intellectual lawyer who calls 'em as he sees 'em. He has no political ax to grind, and he does not try to get other justices to go along with him. He doesn't trim his sails or bargain his vote on one case for someone else's on another.

As a result, he is widely respected for his integrity, and just as widely lamented for his ineffectiveness. A law professor at Northwestern (Stevens' old school) once said, "He hasn't been a high impact player."

The dean of NYU's law school said, "He doesn't have much of a following."

The author of a recent book about the Supreme Court described him as "a loner."

The Sun's Supreme Court reporter labeled him "a maverick."

Democrats also pray for Harry Blackmun, another Republican appointed by a Republican president. That's about the only kind of justice left on the Supreme Court. Of its nine members, only two are Democrats appointed by Democrats: Byron White, by John Kennedy in 1962, and Thurgood Marshall, by Lyndon Johnson in 1967 (June 13).

Wait a minute! Hold the phone! Objection! It's been nearly 24 years since a Democrat went on the Supreme Court?

That's right. If George Bush is re-elected, Republicans will have filled every Supreme Court vacancy -- nine of them so far -- for a period of at least 29 1/2 years.

The record drought was from Dec. 9, 1857 till Dec. 6, 1887. Between those dates, every justice was nominated by Republican presidents -- 16 in all. The worse record for Republicans was from Feb. 15, 1932 till Sept. 30, 1953. Between those dates, Democratic presidents put 12 justices on the court.

* * *

What Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush have done to the Supreme Court is just the half of it.

Saturday: The lower courts.

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