Long-serving Supreme Court justice, Ford appointee, visits Grand Rapids

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

When recently-retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens appeared in Grand Rapids Tuesday, he wanted to talk about

More specifically, he wanted to tell the audience packed into the Amway Grand’s Ambassador Ballroom to hear him give the 2011 Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation’s William E. Simon Lecture in Public Affairs about what the heroes of football he has known taught him about living.

Of course, one of those heroes was Gerald R. Ford himself. From him, Stevens said he learned about courage and fairness in dealing with people from all walks of life.

Stevens shared a story President Ford had told him, about Ford’s initial refusal to participate in a 1934 University of Michigan game in protest because the opposing team insisted that Ford’s African-American teammate,Willis Ward, sit the game out. Ward unselfishly persuaded Ford to play in the game, which the U of M team went on to win.

Stevens said that from the moment he met Ford, he saw that this “extremely competent lawyer who happened to be an extremely nice guy” would be a lifelong, beloved friend.
Ford never lost that sense of fairness, and it was reflected intensely in the president’s attitude toward Justice John Paul Stevens himself.

Stevens wound up — before his resignation last year as the third longest-serving United States Supreme Court justice in history — having a reputation as a “liberal” judge. A careful analysis of his decisions over the 35 years of his Supreme Court career would indicate that his views were more complicated than that, and he declares his allegiance is to the law rather than to any political philosophy about the law. But Ford, the Republican President with a conservative bent who appointed him, was well aware of Stevens’ record and continued to be proud of appointing him.

In fact, in her introduction Tuesday, Ford’s daughter Susan Ford Bales said that she had sought to determine her father’s attitude toward the justice, who was a close family friend. She said, “As so often happens, I found the answer in my father’s own words.”

Before his death, President Ford had talked about his legacy, and stated that if he were to be judged on Justice Stevens’ Supreme Court record alone, that would be enough of a legacy to earn him a place in history.

Bales’ obvious affection for the Supreme Court justice was evident, and he frequently smiled up at her as she introduced him and went on to thank the Grand Rapids community for its compassion on the deaths of her two parents, Betty Ford most recently.

Prior to Bales, two other distinguished Grand Rapids area residents addressed the large crowd.

Doug DeVos, youngest son of the Amway founder, gave a general welcome. After lunch, Hank Meijer followed him, introducing Bales. The current CEO of the chain of stores bearing his name, Meijer serves as vice-chairperson of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, which hosts the William E. Simon Lecture Series.

This year, Thomas M. Cooley Law School co-hosted the lecture. Cooley President Don LeDuc said afterwards that Cooley was deeply pleased to be a part of bringing in the justice. Associate Dean Nelson Miller of the Grand Rapids campus said it was a natural outgrowth of the partnership which formed to bring lecturers in to the Gerald R. Ford Museum over the 2011-2012 academic year.

Stevens himself was very brief in his remarks, honing in on his decision to uphold the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, and what he felt was the contribution of Ford’s stand on fairness to his eventual understanding of such a program’s benefits. (In earlier opinions, Stevens had de-
cided against affirmative action.)

It was difficult to predict how Stevens would decide in most cases. He was a firm believer in the “liberal” cause of protecting people’s civil rights regarding religion, and stated as part of a majority opinion in 1985, “...in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all.” But he also wrote the majority opinion in the 2008 case which upheld the right of states to demand photo identification for voting, often vilified by liberal thinkers.

Stevens authored an opinion, on behalf of the majority, which is the most cited opinion in the history of the Supreme Court, in the 1984 case of  Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. The case concerns standards for court review of agency interpretation of the laws that constitute them.

As Stevens stated forcefully in his speech last Tuesday, the judiciary “should be exclusively legal and not political.” Stevens repeated a story about the congressional confirmation of Edward Levi as United States Attorney General in 1975. According to Stevens, when asked if he was a Republican, Levi after a lot of “stumbling around” said he did not know.
Stevens concluded by telling the crowd, “I think I feel the same way about Gerald R. Ford as you do.”

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