Stevens’ Clerks Reflect on Justice’s Kindness, Even in Editing

July 17, 2019, 8:30 PM

Early on in her Supreme Court clerkship, Melissa Arbus Sherry mentioned to Justice John Paul Stevens that she played high school tennis. Stevens, who was an avid tennis player, suggested that they play together some time, but Sherry didn’t think much of it.

Then, during lunch in the Supreme Court’s courtyard one day near the end of the term, Stevens said, “O.K., I’m gonna come pick you up tomorrow morning before court and we’re gonna go play tennis,’” recalled Sherry, now deputy managing partner of Latham & Watkins’ Washington office.

“We played singles, and he beat me, very badly,” she adds, laughing. “He always had so much energy. He always had a competitive spirit about him. But it also shows to me how much of a wonderful person he was, how much he really cared about his clerkship family.”

Sherry’s anecdote about Stevens was one of many shared by former clerks and others following his death July 16 at 99 following a stroke.

Nominated by Republican Gerald Ford, the Chicago antitrust lawyer became the third-longest-serving justice in history, occupying the bench from 1975 until his 2010 retirement.

He was a liberal champion known for his decisions in landmark cases like Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council on judicial deference to government agencies and Massachusetts v. EPA on regulating greenhouse gasses.

Dissents in divisive cases also were memorable, including Bush v. Gore, which ended the contested 2000 election and put Republican George W. Bush in the White House, and Citizens United v. FEC, which opened up political spending by corporations and other groups.

But he was most remembered by lawyers and advocates as passionate, kind, humble, and sometimes quirky. He supported women’s rights, and was open-minded, dedicated to facts, and committed to the law.

“He really would always listen and engage with the arguments in the briefs, lawyers’ presentations, and his colleagues,” said Samuel Spital, director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, who clerked for Stevens from 2005 to 2006. “A lot of people talk about how that’s what they strive to do, but few really achieve it.”

Spital also remembers that Stevens made him feel completely comfortable as an openly gay clerk, at a time when the rights of LGBT Americans were hotly debated in the legal profession.

“He always just made clear that my gay relationship was just as valid as anyone else’s relationship,” Spital said. “And when we had issues of gay rights that came to the court he was very sensitive of the impact those issues would have on me personally.”

Greg Magarian, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, clerked for Stevens from 1994 to 1995.

“He was kind, well-adjusted, and humane,” Magarian said. “He treated everyone around him like a human being. When you met him, you couldn’t stay nervous; he put everyone at ease. He was comfortable exercising the power of his office, but that power never went to his head.”

Magarian said this demeanor also translated into the workplace, where he always treated his clerks with kindness and respect.

“I remember once I made an innocent but potentially damaging mistake in helping him draft an opinion,” he recalled. “When he learned about my error, he told me about it without a trace of anger or impatience. ‘We’ll correct it in conference, don’t worry,’ he said, and that was the last I ever heard of it.”

Another time, Magarian got “carried away with indignation” while drafting a dissent in a death penalty case, using militant language that might not have been befitting of the court. “‘Good work,’ [Justice Stevens] said in his typically genial tone, ‘but I just want to change a few things you wrote here at the end.’”

His respect for clerks was obvious even in the interview process, according to Anne M. Voigts, who clerked for Stevens from 2000 to 2001 and is now a partner at King & Spalding. Stevens was known for writing the first draft of his opinions, and when speaking to clerkship applicants, he often apologized for this, she said.

“I remember being stunned, being barely a month out of law school, at having a justice apologize to me for his preferences when it came to drafting,” Voigts recalled.

Voigts said she was greatly influenced by Stevens’ style of legal writing, which emphasized the facts. “He felt that once you read through the fact section you should know how the case would come out,” she said. “The way that you write the facts should lead the reader to want to reach the same result that you would. That’s something I have tried to incorporate in my writing ever since.”

Voigts also remembers the justice’s simple preferences when it came to food. He was known among clerks for bringing his own lunch, often a sandwich, to court everyday.

“He was always careful about what he ate,” she said. “And he always joked that the secret to his longevity was that he married a nutritionist.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Russell-Kraft in New York at srussellkraft@gmail.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com

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