Today, at an event sponsored by the First Amendment Center and the Supreme Court Fellows Program Alumni Association, Justice John Paul Stevens, the Senior Associate on the Supreme Court, moderated a discussion with the authors of a new book, The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall and the Battle for the Supreme Court, Clifford Sloan and David McKean. The Justice gave only a brief introduction before the authors spoke about the book and answered questions. Justice Stevens first spoke about his initial exposure to Marbury v. Madison in law school. He jokingly reminisced about the length of time spent on the case, stating that his teacher spent the first six weeks of a constitutional law class devoted solely to the intricacies of the case. He voiced his admiration for the case, calling it fascinating, and agreeing with the assertions by the panelists that the case is “the cornerstone of the Constitutional system.
He then moved on to an issue that, while he admitted was not directly on topic, was very important, the separation of powers. Marbury solidified the independence of the judiciary as a separate branch of government with its own powers. Stevens strongly believes in this and voiced concern that the wall between the executive and the judiciary is weakening. He recalled that when he was sworn in as a justice, his ceremony was performed in the Supreme Court which he viewed to be strongly symbolic of the separation between the political appointment process and his judicial post. Since that time, however, the practice changed and is now performed in the White House. He has boycotted the past four swearing in ceremonies, as he believes that the judiciary should be strongly separated from the political branches, beginning with the swearing in. Stressing the symbolism of the place and manner of the oath, he voiced hope for a change in this process with the next appointee.
Again focusing on the importance of separating the judicial branch from the political process, Stevens questioned the authors about the impeachment of Justice Chase from the Supreme Court shortly after Marbury was decided. Essentially, the opposition party in the House of Representatives sought to impeach Chase because they did not agree with his decisions politically, and used the impeachment as a retaliation against the Court. Chase was eventually acquitted, establishing the doctrine that judges may not be removed due to a dispute over their political preferences or political disagreement with their decisions.
Those looking to for a discussion focused on Stevens’s thoughts on the issue might have been disappointed. Through out the event Stevens was largely content to listen to the panelists. When he spoke he showed his vast knowledge on the subject area, but remained in the role of moderator and gave much of the spot light to the panelists.