The Dissenter

The NYT profiles Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

It may seem surprising that such a passionate leader of the court’s
liberal wing bristles when he is called a liberal. But the fact that
Stevens sees himself as a conservatively oriented centrist makes
perfect sense given what judicial liberalism has become. There was a
time, years ago in the Warren Court era, when liberal justices like
Stevens’s predecessor William O. Douglas saw themselves as on a mission
to recreate American society along boldly egalitarian lines by
discovering newly minted constitutional rights. But for better or
worse, this ambitious conception of judicial liberalism has been
replaced, like much of political liberalism in America, by a more
modest, conciliatory and technocratic sensibility. Even the most
liberal justices today have little appetite for the old approach.

Judicial
liberalism, in other words, has largely become a conservative project:
an effort to preserve the legal status quo in the face of efforts by a
younger generation of conservatives to uproot the precedents of the
past 40 years. Stevens, who wrote or supported many of those
precedents, understandably objects when he feels they are distorted or
mischaracterized by justices who were in college when he was appointed
to the court. At the same time, merely conserving the achievements of
the past is less than what many liberals today ultimately hope for. Can
Stevens provide a model for a new vision of legal liberalism in the
21st century?