Friday, May 2, 2014

Amend ("Six Amendments" by John Paul Stevens)

When John Paul Stevens retired from the Supreme Court in 2010, he had served as a justice for close to thirty-five years, making his term the third longest in American history. He was also 90 years old, the Court's last veteran of World War II, and--if his critics were to be believed--a relic of a bygone era whose departure was two decades too late. Often described as "wise" and "soft-spoken," his customary bow-ties giving him the appearance of a sweet and elderly grandfather out of touch with current trends, it was easy for those beyond the Court's walls to view Stevens with an undisguised mix of amusement and derision:  a snicker and a wink about the Republican appointee who had gone soft, switched sides, and grown old. What the pundits and stone-throwers didn't understand--what those who worked the Supreme Court knew from personal experience and study--was that Stevens' age and appearance belied an agitator of the highest democratic ideal, a man who knew the law better than almost anyone and wasted little time on the ignorant. In his last years, when the Court's decisions ran counter to his own understandings of the law--that is, when the conservative justices began overriding precedent and undermining Constitutional law--Stevens' dissents were brutal in their honesty and intelligence, especially when focused on the honesty and intelligence of the majority. When outsiders criticized Stevens as a turncoat who abandoned the Republican cause, they didn't understand that it had abandoned him first.

Now 94, Stevens' mind is still as strong and clear as it was during his term. Only now, the Supreme Court four years behind him, his judicial ideas have become much more political in nature. He does not look kindly on the justices he left behind, especially those who have worked so hard--and worked during the last years of his term--to undo much of the progress of the last 75 years by reinterpreting and redefining some of the most fundamental American rights--free speech, life, liberty, equality--to create a system in which those with money have power, those without have even less, and those who reek of "otherness" are prevented from becoming part of the great American "us." It is this anger--and despite his measured and professional tone, Stevens is clearly angry--that compelled him to write Six Amendments, in which he proposes small changes to preexisting Constitutional amendments with the goal of making our country a more perfect union.

As with most cases that involve the Supreme Court, however, there are problems. The most obvious, and therefore the most damaging, is not one of purpose or authority--he has both, and as someone who has lived with the Constitutional longer and more intimately than almost anyone else alive today, he should be more than forgiven for taking up the cause of preserving America's greatest ideals through monumental revisions...after all, he would know more than anyone else where the document's shortcomings can be found.  No, his problem is not one of ethos but of interest. The dry, academic style that served Stevens so well as a sitting justice make much of his book difficult to read. (His longest chapter, on sovereign immunity, is downright impenetrable.) While on the court, Stevens wrote primarily for those involved in law--after all, they would be the ones most likely to reread and reference his opinions in the decades to come; a book, on the other hand, is intended for wider audiences, and the language and style inherent in judicial literature does not translate well to the bookshelves and devices of the average reader. The only exception is Steven's chapter on the death penalty, which he bases almost exclusively on personal stories--his own, the defendants of two death-penalty cases, and so on. In doing this, Stevens removes the issue from the lofty heights of cold legalese and makes it real, palpable, and relatable, insomuch as a death-penalty case can be. It's also the only amendment that Stevens stakes in ethics rather than Constitutional precedent:  by continuing to use the death penalty today, long after the rest of the industrial world has abandoned it, and in the shadow of so many wrongful convictions and botched executions--which, as it happens, meet the Constitutional definition of cruel and unusual--we are staking our national and democratic reputations on an act that is hypocritical, immoral, and ineffective.

It's the sixth and final chapter, however, that is the entire impetus for Stevens' one-man Constitutional convention, as Stevens himself reveals on the very last page:  below a photograph of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 26 students and educators were killed by a lone gunman, Stevens writes, in part, "That incident provided the catalyst for writing this book." And yet, for all the passion that must have propelled Stevens to write a book in response to such a tragic event, his final chapter is by far the book's weakest. At only 9 pages, Stevens breaks down the rulings in two recent gun-rights cases and decries both as misguided, as neither followed the Second Amendment as it was originally intended. For Stevens, the poorly worded amendment was designed only to ensure unrestricted gun possession among members of a militia, not private citizens; however, he does provide a single source to support this reading, not from the writings of the Founders or Constitutional drafts or even the analysis of scholars, historians, linguists, or grammarians. Instead, he pronounces his reading as fact while dismissing every other reading as political, then concludes the chapter with a photographic nod to the source of his writing--a memoriam that is, unfortunately, underserved by author himself.