Journal of Leadership and the Law

Studies in Leadership

The leadership legacy of Justice John Paul Stevens

Craig D. Rust

Craig Rust is a graduate of George Mason University School of Law, and a former law clerk to the Honorable Samuel G. Wilson of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.

Abstract

U.S. Supreme Court Justice (retired) John Paul StevensCommentators have recently praised Justice John Paul Stevens for his transformation from an independent and unpredictable jurist to a consensus builder and leader of the Supreme Court’s liberal bloc during his career on the Court.  But is this narrative actually true?

Indeed, the data from Justice Stevens’s tenure on the Court tells a story of great influence, just not one involving building a consensus among his colleagues.  This essay finds that statistics on the number and types of opinions Justice Stevens authored do not support the view that he “changed” at the midpoint, or any point, of his career.  Instead, Justice Stevens remained highly idiosyncratic throughout his career, writing separate opinions at a rate dwarfing that of any other justice in the Court’s history.  Those separate opinions also failed to attract high levels of support relative to the votes garnered by other justices’ separate opinions. 

However, the numbers also show that Justice Stevens acted as an intellectual leader for generations of American scholars and jurists, if not necessarily among his peers on the Court.  Indeed, Justice Stevens has been cited by name in over 10,000 federal court opinions since he began his judicial career on the Seventh Circuit, demonstrating that he has profoundly affected the development of federal law over the last forty years, even if he lacked the desire or ability to achieve high levels of consensus within the Court itself.

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