Snapshot of Important Stevens Cases

The following is a sampling of important and historic Supreme Court cases that are frequently associated with Justice Stevens.

Atkins v. Virginia

In Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), Justice Stevens wrote the historic opinion for the 6-3 majority which held that the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits the execution of mentally retarded criminal defendants. Stevens questioned whether either of the two main justifications that serve as the basis for the death penalty – retribution and deterrence – can be served by the execution of a mentally retarded defendant, rendering it "nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering" and an "unconstitutional punishment." Id. at 319 (internal citations omitted). In recognizing that mentally disabled criminal defendants face a special risk of wrongful execution, Stevens highlighted the factors that call for a less severe penalty: the "possibility of false confessions," the inability to provide meaningful assistance to their counsel, difficulty in providing testimony, and a demeanor that may create "an unwarranted impression of lack of remorse for their crimes." Id. at 320-321. In summary, Stevens wrote that "mentally retarded defendants in the aggregate face a special risk of wrongful execution" thereby recognizing the need to make considerations for society's most vulnerable. Id. at 321.

Rasul v. Bush

In Rasul v. Bush, 542 U.S. 466 (2004), Justice Stevens wrote the 6-3 majority opinion which recognized that habeas corpus relief extends to detainees at Guantanamo Bay and held that our federal courts have jurisdiction to hear those claims. Stevens wrote: "Petitioners' allegations – that, although they have engaged neither in combat nor in acts of terrorism against the United States, they have been held in executive detention for more than two years in territory subject to the long-term, exclusive jurisdiction and control of the United States, without access to counsel and without being charged with any wrongdoing – unquestionably describe custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." Id. at 484, fn 15 (citations omitted).

Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

A year and a half later, the Court was presented again with a Guantanamo habeas case in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. 557 (2006), which involved the adequacy of military tribunals put in place by the Bush administration to review such detentions. Again,Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion for a 5-3 Court which held that military detainees are entitled to fundamental due process rights including the right to be present at their trials and the right to confront the witnesses against them. The majority further held that the DTA – which was passed by Congress after the Court had already granted certiorari in the case - did not preclude federal habeas cases filed by Guantanamo detainees and pending at the time the act was passed from going forward. As a result of the decision, Congress again sought to preclude habeas relief to the detainees by passing the Military Commissions Act which was later found to be unconstitutional in Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2008), by a 5-4 majority of the Court that included Justice Stevens.

Clinton v. Jones

Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681 (1997), involved plaintiff Paula Jones' sexual harassment and other claims against President Clinton for acts occurring during his term as governor for the State of Arkansas. Facing a temporary stay of the litigation in the lower court until the end of Clinton's presidency, Jones took her case to the Supreme Court. Justice Stevens wrote the opinion for the unanimous court which allowed the case to proceed, holding that a sitting President of the United States does not have immunity against a civil lawsuit for unofficial conduct that occurred prior to his assuming office. In rejecting President Clinton's argument that the separation of powers doctrine requires federal courts to stay all private actions against the President until he leaves office, Stevens wrote that "such a lengthy and categorical stay takes no account whatever of [the individual's] interest in bringing the case to trial" and "would increase the danger of prejudice resulting from the loss of evidence." 707.

District of Columbia v. Heller

In District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S.Ct. 2783 (2008), a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court struck down a D.C. law that, among other things, banned handguns and held that the law was an unconstitutional violation of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees an individual right to possess personal firearms for self-defense. Justice Stevens authored a dissent which strongly criticized the majority's interpretation of the 2nd Amendment to limit legislative authority to regulate private civilian uses of firearms. Stevens called the majority's decision a "dramatic upheaval in the law" and concluded that "[t]he Court would have us believe that over 200 years ago, the Framers made a choice to limit the tools available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons. . . I could not possibly conclude that the Framers made such a choice." Id. at 2824, 2847 (Stevens, J., dissenting).

U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton

In U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995), Justice Stevens wrote the 5-4 majority opinion which held that states cannot impose qualifications on members of Congress stricter than those found in the U.S. Constitution. In affirming the decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court in finding such state restrictions unconstitutional, Stevens explained that such restrictions violate the important idea "that the right to choose representatives belongs not to the States, but to the people. . . Following the adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913, this ideal was extended to elections for the Senate. The Congress of the United States, therefore, is not a confederation of nations in which separate sovereigns are represented by appointed delegates, but is instead a body composed of representatives of the people." 821. He further noted that "[p]ermitting individual States to formulate diverse qualifications for their representatives would result in a patchwork of state qualifications, undermining the uniformity and the national character that the Framers envisioned and sought to ensure." Id. at 822.

Citizens United v. FEC

In Citizens United v. FEC, 130 S.Ct. 876 (2010), a conservative bloc of the Supreme Court reversed its decades-long decision upholding government restrictions on the independent expenditure of funds from a corporation's general treasury for political speech. In overturning that precedent, the 5-4 majority ruled for the first time that corporations are guaranteed the same free speech rights as real people, thereby ruling that governmental restrictions on corporate spending in elections are invalid and unconstitutional. Justice Stevens wrote a scathing dissent, pointing out that "[t]he Framers . . . had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind," and that "in a functioning democracy the public must have faith that its representatives owe their positions to the people, not to the corporations with the deepest pockets." Id. at 950, 960 (Stevens, J., dissenting).

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