You might be tempted to congratulate retired Tribune columnist Bill Barnhart and his research associate/co-author, Gene Schlickman, on their prescience in releasing the first-ever biography of Chicago native and second-longest-ever-serving Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, just as Stevens announced his retirement. But Stevens is 90 years old, after all, so the odds were a little bit stacked in their favor. Nevertheless, interest in the career of the Court’s great coalition builder and dissent writer has never been higher. (Perhaps his greatest line, in his Bush v. Gore dissent: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as the impartial guardian of the rule of law.”) It is this independence of thought, this freedom from ideology—Stevens was appointed as a Republican but now often sides with the Court’s Liberal wing—that distinguishes him, in Barnhart’s mind. And perhaps in order to retain his sense of impersonal perspective in his work, Stevens took an interesting position on this book, neither fully cooperating nor discouraging it. In the acknowledgements, Barnhart writes, “Justice Stevens remained impartial—one might even say independent—throughout the process of our research and our writing of this book. While he did not sit for extensive interviews, he provided anecdotes, made himself available when questions arose, and was, throughout, a gracious and interested spectator.” As a consequence of this and the Justice’s advanced age, which means many of his contemporaries are no longer alive, Barnhart had to rely extensively on the written record. As such, the book has a straightforward character, tracing Stevens’ rise from a privileged Hyde Parker—his father developed the Stevens Hotel, now the Chicago Hilton and Towers, before falling to financial and later legal mishaps during the Great Depression—through service in World War II, the University of Chicago and Northwestern Law School, and a career in Illinois’ legal community before his appointment to the Court in 1975. Even within his biography, Stevens remains something of a cipher, as I expect he intends to, at least until he leaves the Court this summer and turns, perhaps, to his own memoirs and perhaps shares at last some insight into his inner life. (Brian Hieggelke)
The launch party for “John Paul Stevens: An Independent Life” takes place May 20, 6pm, at Billy Goat Tavern, 430 North Michigan-Lower Level, (312)222-1525.