Justice John Paul Stevens Speaks to Georgetown 1Ls

October 2, 2014 — “Your most important asset is your reputation for integrity,” retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens told first-year law students in Georgetown Law’s Hart Auditorium on October 1. “You must always remember — you’ve got to play by the rules.”

At the Law Center’s inaugural “Conversation to the First-Year Class” the legendary 94-year-old sat down with Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor and approximately 350 1Ls in Hart Auditorium to discuss his career, life on the Court and much more. One of the Supreme Court’s longest-serving jurists, Stevens was nominated in 1975 and retired in 2010. 

Treanor, who is a historian as well as a law dean and professor, noted that former President Gerald R. Ford once said that he would be more than happy to rest his presidential legacy exclusively on his nomination of Stevens. “I don’t know of any other president who has made a statement like that about a Supreme Court justice.”

Stevens clerked for Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge, from whom he learned the value of writing the first drafts of opinions. (Stevens also analyzed enemy communications in the military; he enlisted in the Navy on December 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.) Stevens said that he might have become an English teacher but for the G.I. Bill of Rights and the influence of his lawyer brother. The former justice also spoke about his book Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, which was published in April.

While Stevens provided students with plenty of advice for the future, such as the importance of oral arguments and how to write a good brief, his advice to them for now was “study hard. It pays off if you do.”

The former justice also answered students’ questions: Who’s the funniest justice on the Court? “Nino Scalia,” Stevens said, though Byron White was known to answer a phone in the Supreme Court conference room with the greeting “Joe’s Bar.” Which justice did you most admire and why? “Thurgood Marshall, but my strongest admiration for him was for the work he did even before he was a justice.” What was the worst decision you witnessed during your tenure? Bush v. Gore, Stevens said, because “it gave the public the incorrect impression that courts are political institutions.” (Stevens dissented in that case.) 

“I think when people are placed in high positions, there is a risk of losing who you are as a person,” said Jessica Bigby (L’18). “Justice Stevens demonstrated the importance of maintaining your identity, your character and your sense of humor.” 

A webcast is available here. The event may also be viewed on C-SPAN, airing for the first time on Friday, October 3 at 10 p.m.