NEA Tribute to Justice John Paul Stevens
In 2010, Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement from the U. S. Supreme Court after 35 years of service, the third-longest tenure in the history of the Court. In recognition of his extraordinary contribution to the cause of public education, the National Education Association offers this tribute to Justice Stevens.
Justice Stevens’ legacy includes authoring nearly 400 majority opinions, many of them protecting the rights of education employees and students. But he is best known as the Court’s staunchest defender of a high wall of separation between Church and State. He wrote the Court’s important decision in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), invalidating an Alabama law requiring a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day that was intended to facilitate prayer. Fifteen years later in Santa Fe ISD v. Doe, his majority opinion struck down a school’s policy allowing student-led prayer before football games. He joined the Court’s majority in striking down a Louisiana law banning the teaching of evolution unless “creation science” is taught as well (Edwards v. Aguillard). And he wrote a stinging dissent in NEA’s Ohio voucher case (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris), calling the decision “profoundly misguided,” and arguing that “public funds” should never be used “to pay for the indoctrination of thousands of grammar school children in particular religious faiths.” In the same dissent, he famously warned, “Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy.”
In virtually every case involving the rights of public employees, Justice Stevens sided with employees. In Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, for example, he provided the fifth and deciding vote to uphold the right of a school employee to sue a school district for punishing him in retaliation for complaining about the unequal treatment of female athletes. Justice Stevens authored one of the seminal decisions involving the free speech rights of public workers. In Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, the Court struck down political patronage, holding that non-policy making public employees can’t be fired, demoted, or refused employment because they belong to the “wrong” political party. He also wrote the majority opinion in U.S. v. National Treasury Employees Union, overturning a ban on federal employees accepting honoraria for speaking and writing “off-the-clock.” And he penned the Court’s opinion in Smith v. City of Jackson, Mississippi, which expanded the rights of public employees to bring age discrimination claims against their employer under federal law.
Justice Stevens always recognized the importance and value of public education and racial equality. He provided the fifth vote in what many believe to be one of the High Court’s most important education rulings, Plyler v. Doe. In that case, the Court struck down a Texas law denying a public education to the children of undocumented immigrants. The majority wrote that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” The Texas law “imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status. The stigma of illiteracy will mark them for the rest of their lives. By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.” In a similar vein, he authored a strident dissent in the Court’s decision striking down Seattle’s voluntary, affirmative action, student assignment plan in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. Describing the majority’s reliance on Brown v. Board of Education as a “cruel irony,” Justice Stevens accused the Chief Justice of “rewrite[ing] the history of one of this Court's most important decisions.” He added, “Children of all races benefit from integrated classrooms and playgrounds.” And he dissented from the Court’s decision in Wygant v. Jackson Bd. of Educ. striking down an affirmative action, teacher layoff policy that had been negotiated between a Michigan school district and an NEA local. “In the context of public education, it is quite obvious that a school board may reasonably conclude that an integrated faculty will be able to provide benefits to the student body that could not be provided by an all-white, or nearly all-white, faculty.” Such a policy, he said, “advances the public interest in educating children for the future.”
In matters relating to gay rights and individual liberty, time has proven Justice Steven to be on the right side of history. When in 1986 the Court upheld Georgia’s statute criminalizing homosexual conduct in Bowers v. Hardwick, Justice Stevens penned a strong dissent arguing that “individual decisions … concerning the intimacies of their physical relationship, even when not intended to produce offspring, are a form of ‘liberty’ protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Seventeen years later, when the Court overturned Bowers and struck down Texas’ anti-sodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas, the Court quoted from that dissent and said, “Justice Stevens' analysis, in our view, should have been controlling in Bowers and should control here.”
Just a few months before he retired, the Court handed down its devastating decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allowing unlimited corporate expenditures on elections. When the decision was announced, Justice Stevens took the highly unusual step of reading for 20 minutes from his 90-page dissent. Declaring “I emphatically dissent,” he described the majority opinion as “profoundly misguided,” “backwards,” “incorrect,” and just plain “nonsense.” He wrote, “The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.” And he closed with this observation: “While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Hopefully, Justice Stevens’ dissent in Citizens United will ultimately be adopted by a majority of the Court as in the Bowers case.
Justice Stevens is an individual of unfailing politeness and good manners who will be fondly remembered for his habit of asking, “May I ask a question?” before questioning counsel at oral argument. With his retirement from the Court, NEA and the Nation have lost a champion of freedom and a stalwart friend of education. He stung the conscience of America, transformed our social fabric, and elevated our national character. Over the past 35 years, we have learned this simple truth about Justice John Paul Stevens: he embodies what it means to serve our country with honor, decency, and respect for the rule of law. He will be sorely missed.