The Paradox of Justice John Paul Stevens

10 Pages Posted: 18 May 2020

See all articles by Sonja West

Sonja West

University of Georgia School of Law

Dahlia Lithwick


Date Written: May 14, 2020


In the days following Justice John Paul Stevens’s death last year, numerous tributes and remembrances immediately poured forth. Former clerks, journalists, and legal scholars all grasped for the perfect words to capture the man and the justice we had just lost.

Yet many readers of these tributes and homages might have begun to wonder whether they were actually all talking about the same person. Because, taken together, the various portraits appeared to be full of contradictions. In one piece, for example, Justice Stevens is described as a frequent lone dissenter, while in another he is praised for his consensusbuilding leadership. For every tribute depicting him as a moderate around whom the Court shifted rightward, there seemed to be another painting him as a jurist who drifted leftward. He was a Republican yet also a liberal giant. He was deeply patriotic, while also a sharp critic of governmental institutions.

So who was the real Justice Stevens? How can we possibly be expected to understand his legacy if we can’t even agree on the basic characteristics he embodied? Which of these portraits is correct?

The answer is that they all are. If Justice Stevens were a multiple-choice test, the right answer to pretty much every question would likely be “all of the above.” He was, in so many ways and at so many times, both a thing and also the opposite of that thing. And the secret to understanding Justice Stevens’s legacy is to appreciate how his seemingly paradoxical nature was, in fact, his greatest strength.

Keywords: Justice John Paul Stevens, Supreme Court, biography, legal history

JEL Classification: K19

Suggested Citation

West, Sonja and Lithwick, Dahlia, The Paradox of Justice John Paul Stevens (May 14, 2020). Northwestern University Law Review, Vol. 114, 2020, University of Georgia School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2020-13, Available at SSRN:

Sonja West (Contact Author)

University of Georgia School of Law ( email )

225 Herty Drive
Athens, GA 30602
United States
(706) 542-5145 (Phone)
(706) 542-5556 (Fax)


Dahlia Lithwick


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