Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor Remembers Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens

July 17, 2019

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens is pictured with Dean William M. Treanor in Georgetown Law’s Hart Auditorium in this October 1, 2014, file photo. Stevens died July 16, 2019.

Back when Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor was the dean of Fordham Law, former U.S. President Gerald Ford wrote to him in a letter that Ford would be more than happy to have his presidential legacy rest solely on his nomination of John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s an extraordinary statement,” Treanor has said. Ford was a Republican, but Stevens would become the “liberal lion on the court,” as most of the justices he served with over the years were replaced with more conservative ones.

The 2005 letter and the sentiment were remembered July 17 as Treanor and other constitutional scholars, lawyers and judges across the country paid tribute to the retired justice. Stevens died July 16 at the age of 99.

“He was a justice who was committed to the rule of law, who was brilliant and who had absolute integrity,” Treanor told NPR’s Steve Inskeep on “Morning Edition” on July 17. Stevens, Treanor said, was “my personal hero.”

Treanor had plenty of opportunities — after that legal conference he hosted at Fordham — to form an opinion. In 2010, the Georgetown Law Journal and the Supreme Court Institute held a symposium to honor Stevens, who at the time had just retired from the Court at the age of 90.

The event celebrated “one of the great judicial careers in the nation’s history,” Treanor said then, describing how Ford, in 1975, wanted a Supreme Court nominee known for his competence, court experience, personal integrity and independent thought to heal the nation in the wake of Watergate.

Stevens did not speak at the 2010 event but listened as former U.S. solicitors general, former Supreme Court clerks, professors and other advocates offered their thoughts on his 34-year tenure. Professor Neal Katyal, who was then serving as acting solicitor general and who argued Hamdan v. Rumsfeld before the court in 2006, noted Stevens’ commitment to justice, his respect for the three branches of government and his concern for the integrity of the process by which democratic decisions are made. “Few have served the public with greater distinction,” Katyal said then.

On October 1, 2014, Stevens returned to Georgetown Law to headline the Law Center’s inaugural “Conversation to the First-Year Class.” The justice, then 94, sat down with the dean and approximately 350 1Ls in Hart Auditorium.

“Your most important asset is your reputation for integrity,” Stevens told students. “You must always remember — you’ve got to play by the rules.”

The former justice also answered the questions of students, now alumni: Who was 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 the case.

Watch a video of Dean Treanor and Professor Neal Katyal at the Georgetown Law Journal/Supreme Court Institute Symposium honoring Supreme Court Justice Stevens in 2010.

Watch a video of Supreme Court Justice Stevens speaking to Georgetown Law’s first-year class in 2014.

President Ford’s 2005 letter to Dean Treanor at Fordham appears at SYMPOSIUM: THE JURISPRUDENCE OF JUSTICE STEVENS: INTRODUCTION, 74 Fordham L. Rev. 1557

An opinion piece on the late justice by Cliff Sloan, a dean’s visiting scholar at Georgetown Law and a former Stevens law clerk, appeared July 17 in the Washington Post.