Supreme Legacy: Gerald Ford and John Paul Stevens

JURIST Guest Columnist Alison Nathan of Fordham University School of Law says that one of the best and most enduring legacies of the late President Gerald Ford has been John Paul Stevens, his one Supreme Court justice whom he nominated in 1975...



As the United States mourns the loss of former President Gerald Ford, much will be said about his service to the nation and the legacy of his Presidency. He will and should be remembered vividly for restoring a sense of integrity and trust in government following the Watergate scandal, for ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, for helping broker a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and for signing the Helsinki human rights treaty with the then Soviet Union.

I would like, however, to remember and thank him for a decision he made that has had particularly lasting and significant impact on the life of this nation—his single appointment to the United States Supreme Court: that of Justice John Paul Stevens.

President Ford would, I believe, be quite content in knowing that some focus was being paid to this aspect of his legacy. Indeed, a few years ago, President Ford wrote a letter to the Dean of Fordham Law School in which he stated:

"Historians study the significant diplomatic, legislative, and economic events that occurred during a Presidential term to evaluate that Presidency. Normally, little or no attention is given to the long term effects of that President's Supreme Court nominees…Let that not be the case with my Presidency. For 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 John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court."

When President Ford made that decision to nominate John Paul Stevens in 1975 to replace Justice William Douglas, he selected a "judge's judge." Since the time President Ford appointed him, Justice Stevens' thirty years on the Supreme Court bench have been marked by a tenacious consistency: a deep commitment to principles of equality, justice, and liberty. Evidence of this judicial consistency can be found in the fact that thirty years after appointing him, President Ford said that he continued to "endorse [Justice Stevens'] constitutional views on the secular character of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause, on securing procedural safeguards in criminal cases, and on the constitution's broad grant of regulatory authority to Congress."

In that same letter to the Fordham dean, President Ford also praised Justice Stevens on his "charming wit and sense of humor." His is an impish sense of humor born of kindness and compassion and devoid of any note of superiority. No wonder President Ford liked him as much as he did; they were cut from a similar cloth woven of integrity, decency, and sense of duty.

If, as President Ford requested, history judges his legacy at least in part on his appointment of John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, then history will judge President Ford, and his Judge, well.


Alison J. Nathan is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Fordham Law School. She is a former law clerk to US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and teaches in the areas of civil procedure, habeas and the death penalty.
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