Copyright by William E. Barnhart, MST’69, MBA’81, and Gene Schlickman; adapted from John Paul Stevens: An Independent Life (Northern Illinois University Press, May 2010); used with permission

[Justice Stevens] in many ways is an intellectual heir of the Lab Schools’ founder, John Dewey.”
—Edward Siskel
JD'00

Looking back on his intellectual journey in a 1979 speech, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, AB’41, made the case that his core legal skills stemmed from his training as an undergraduate English student at the University of Chicago.

Speaking to University students, Stevens recalled learning from the novelist Norman Maclean, PhD’40, the art of reading and of taking writing seriously.

“He taught me to read every word of a poem,” Stevens said. “The study of English literature, especially lyric poetry, is the best preparation for the law… That training helped me later, when trying to decipher law statutes.”

Stevens’ long ties to the University offer insights into how he trained his mind and prepared for a career of legal leadership. He formally retired from the Court on June 29, and on Aug. 7 the Court welcomed his successor—another accomplished lawyer with University ties, Justice Elena Kagan.

Few public figures have had a more thorough UChicago upbringing than Stevens, a Hyde Park native whose ties to the school started in kindergarten at the Laboratory Schools, continued through college, and picked up again in the 1950s when he lectured at the Law School. For Stevens, the University offered something new at each stage—an innovative education in his childhood, later a port in the storm of the Depression, and finally a chance to develop his legal outlook and get to know leaders who would play an important role in his career.

At Lab, an “intellectual heir” of Dewey

Some of the earliest roots of Stevens’ independent outlook may have come from his time at Lab. Edward Siskel, JD’00, one of Justice Stevens’ former law clerks, who profiled Stevens in the August 2002 University of Chicago Magazine, wrote that Stevens “in many ways is an intellectual heir of the Lab Schools’ founder, John Dewey.”

Johnny, as he was known, excelled at Lab, where Dewey’s controversial, child-centered teaching methods held sway long after Dewey left the campus in 1904. Doing was central to learning in a Dewey school. In Stevens’ school days, Lab School students in the elementary grades built models of the historical settings they studied. Everyone participated in activity-based learning centered on the school itself as a community. “The girls had to take shop, and the boys had to take home economics,” recalled one of his classmates, George Rinder. In Dewey’s system, the play area of Scammon Garden was another classroom.

Accounts by several classmates indicate that Johnny was a model Dewey child, active in sports, a favorite among his classmates, and smart. Rinder recalled Stevens in the fourth or fifth grade earning extra credit by quickly solving problems in multiplication and division on a classroom chalkboard—while writing in Roman numerals.

A remark attributed to Stevens in his 1937 senior yearbook was prescient, though he probably never said it. Next to each student’s photograph, along with the customary list of school achievements, University High School editors published an amusing “expression” by the pictured senior. For Stevens’ entry, the phrase was “Well, no, because …”

This polite overture to dissent correctly forecast one of Stevens’ inclinations as a Supreme Court justice. Actually, the student editors invented most of the quoted lines, including Stevens’, under deadline pressure. The words were “some smartass statement” that they imagined Stevens might say. They were less successful in predicting Stevens’ “destiny”—kindergarten teacher.

Becoming a “campus celebrity”

In the University of Chicago undergraduate College, Stevens excelled as a scholar as well as a campus celebrity. He was named the head class marshal and elected to the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity of scholars. He played for the school’s undefeated tennis team in 1938. He was chairman, night editor, and occasional columnist for the student newspaper, The Daily Maroon. Among his job titles was sports editor, an assignment that became less rigorous after President Robert Maynard Hutchins abolished intercollegiate football at the school in Stevens’ junior year.

The initials JPS, which litigants and Supreme Court scholars today recognize on opinion drafts and Court memoranda, first appeared on his student society columns and editorials in the Maroon. At the start of Stevens’ senior year, the newspaper’s four-member board of control, chaired by Stevens, declared that it would report such campus debates but take no editorial position on worldly issues. Instead, it pledged to focus its editorial attention strictly on student affairs. The stance fit Hutchins’ own vision of the University as an intellectual enclave.

But the school strove to shake students out of intellectual complacency—a task that suited Norman Fitzroy Maclean, one of the College’s most popular teachers. Stevens has called Maclean a mentor and “my inspiration.” Stevens’ lifelong affection for English literature, especially the works of William Shakespeare, reflects Maclean’s influence.

A path to the Supreme Court

Although he considered becoming a Shakespeare scholar, Stevens instead served as a Navy cryptographer during World War II, and he enrolled at Northwestern University Law School after the war.

Stevens co-authored a 1949 article for Northwestern’s law review arguing that the Roosevelt-era definition of a monopoly was too broad. “It is not true that every monopolist monopolizes,” the authors wrote. The article was in tune with emerging thinking at the University of Chicago, where Law School dean Edward H. Levi, PhB’32, JD’35, and others were arguing that some large corporations could promote efficiency and benefit consumers.

Stevens attended the Chicago School, in a manner of speaking. As a lecturer in 1954-55 and again in the summer of 1958, he taught the signature course of Levi and law professor Aaron Director, “Competition and Monopoly.” His students remembered his informal, practical, “cheerful” teaching style. The teaching stint helped buttress his increasingly impressive legal resume.

In 1975, when Justice William Douglas retired from the Supreme Court, Levi had recently become President Ford’s Attorney General. Faced with the Watergate legacy and other simmering scandals, Levi was intent on restoring trust in the American system of justice. Like Stevens, Levi was a Hyde Park native, had attended Lab, and studied English as a College undergraduate. He became Stevens’ main champion in Washington for the vacant Supreme Court post.

A Respected Voice for Justice

Stevens received bipartisan praise for his qualities of mind, though no one claimed to know his judicial philosophy. Levi, appearing on the CBS’ Face the Nation, said he didn’t have “the slightest idea” what positions Stevens would take on the death penalty or other issues.

“Of course, I think he’d probably do what I would do,” Levi quipped, “but that’s because I think he’s a very sound fellow.”

Stevens wound up siding most often with the Court’s liberals, yet in 2005 former President Ford wrote that he had served “with dignity, intellect, and without partisan political concerns.”

In that letter to the president of the Fordham University School of Law, Ford wrote, “I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination thirty years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Originally published on August 9, 2010.