CBS's Pelley Promotes Claim Supreme Court 'Stole' 2000 Election for Bush in John Paul Stevens Interview

In a softball interview with retired liberal Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens on Sunday's 60 Minutes, correspondent Scott Pelley touted Stevens's opposition to the court ruling on the 2000 presidential election: "He thinks [Bush v. Gore] is one of the Court's greatest blunders....There were many people in this country who felt that the Supreme Court stole that election for President Bush."

Pelley introduced the segment by proclaiming that Stevens "has shaped more American history than any Supreme Court justice alive" and made "decisions that have changed our times." The decisions Pelley focused on were the Justice's most liberal: "It was Stevens who forced a showdown with President Bush over the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and Stevens who tried to stop the court from deciding the presidential election of 2000."

After describing how people thought the Court "stole" the election for Bush, Pelley wondered: "Was the decision of the Court a partisan decision?" Back in 2000, on the December 13 broadcast of the CBS Evening News, then anchor Dan Rather similarly described the Court's decision: "Good evening. Texas Governor George Bush tonight will assume the mantle and the honor of President-elect. This comes 24 hours after a sharply split and, some say, politically and ideologically motivated U.S. Supreme Court ended Vice President Gore’s contest of the Florida election and, in effect, handed the presidency to Bush."

Later, Pelley described how Stevens's opinions on terrorism cases "are seen as among the most important of his career." Pelley remarked: "There is one inscription and one inscription only above the door to this building." Stevens replied: "'Equal Justice Under Law.'" Pelley continued: "And that applies to foreign nationals who may wish to do this country harm?" Stevens argued: "If they're to be prosecuted for crimes, they're entitled to a fair trial or fair procedures."

Pelley also highlighted the case of terror suspect Jose Padilla, describing how "The court majority dismissed Padilla's appeal on a technicality." He then touted: "Stevens and three other justices had wanted to rule on Padilla's detention. Stevens aimed his dissent at the Bush administration, writing, 'If this nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants.'"

Turning to fellow retired liberal Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Pelley asked about Stevens's opinion: "How important was that?" Souter declared: "It's as fundamental as any decision that's been made that I can think of on a citizen's liberty in my lifetime." Pelley concluded: "And it was Justice Stevens who stood up and said, 'Wait a minute, this has gone too far.'...He rendered a service to the country in those opinions?" Souter replied: "That made him one of the great judges."

Pelley finally mentioned criticism of Stevens: "I would imagine that the majority of the American people would probably disagree with you on these opinions." However, the 60 Minutes correspondent chose not to speak to that majority in the segment.

In contrast, in a 2008 interview with Antonin Scalia, correspondent Lesley Stahl had no problem reciting a list of criticisms of the conservative justice: "In the U.S. Justice Scalia is a polarizing figure...who invites protestors and picketers. There haven't been many Supreme Court justices who become this much of a lightening rod....I'm surprised at how many people really, really hate you. These are some things we've been told: 'He's evil.' 'He's a Neanderthal.' 'He's going to drag us back to 1789.' They're threatened by what you represent and what you believe in."

Near the end of the Stevens interview, Pelley announced: "Stevens told us he was worried about the direction of the court. The Supreme Court is supposed to uphold the Constitution, but throughout its history, there has always been tension when justices appear to rewrite laws that Congress was elected to write. 'Legislating from the bench,' it's called." Predictably, one of Court's recent conservative rulings was cited as evidence: "Stevens says one of the worst examples came this year in a case called 'Citizens United.' The court majority overturned 100 years of law that limited corporate money in politics. You believe the court legislated from the bench?"

Pelley asked: "Where does the court make a mistake, in your view?" Stevens argued: "If the debate is distorted by having one side have so much greater resources than the other, that, sometimes, may distort the ability to decide the debate on the merits. You want to be sure that it's a fair fight." Pelley added: "In 'Citizens United,' Stevens' opinion was a warning to the court. 'The decision,' he wrote, 'will, I fear, do damage to this institution.'"


Here is a full transcript of the November 28 interview with Stevens:

7:51PM ET

SCOTT PELLEY: Justice John Paul Stevens has shaped more American history than any Supreme Court justice alive. And for most of his 35 years on the court, he followed the usual tradition, declining to talk about his cases in interviews. As he prepared to retire, we hoped that he'd overrule that custom and talk with us about the decisions that have changed our times. It was Stevens who forced a showdown with President Bush over the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and Stevens who tried to stop the court from deciding the presidential election of 2000. At the end of his last term, Justice Stevens ruled on our request and, in a series of interviews, he opened a rare window into the nation's highest court.

We met John Stevens at the Supreme Court this past summer as he prepared to retire at the age of 90. He was appointed by President Ford, but as a moderate Republican, he ultimately became the leader of the court's liberal wing. With nearly 35 years here, he is the third-longest serving justice ever, and with history like that, it's hard to know where to start. But we picked the landmark case of 2000, which he thinks is one of the court's greatest blunders. What should the court have done in 'Bush v. Gore'?

JOHN PAUL STEVENS: It should've denied the stay, period.

PELLEY: And therefore, let the recount go on in Florida?

STEVENS: That's right.

PELLEY: 'Bush vs. Gore' – a month after election day, Florida was recounting ballots. Bush was ahead, but the recount might go either way. So the Bush campaign asked the court for a stay to stop the recount, on the grounds that the recount would cause irreparable harm to the nation. The night before the court heard the request, Stevens ran into another justice at a party.

STEVENS: And I remember both of us saying to one another, 'Well, I guess we're going to have to meet tomorrow on this, but that'll take us about ten minutes,' because it had, obviously, no merit to it. Because in order to get a stay, in any situation, the applicant has to prove irreparable injury, and there just obviously wasn't any irreparable injury to allowing a recount to go through, because the worst that happens is you get a more accurate count of the votes. But much to our surprise, on the next day, the majority did decide to grant a stay.

PELLEY: Ultimately, the majority ruled that the recount wouldn't be fair because recount procedures were inconsistent across the state and couldn't be fixed before Florida's deadline. There were many people in this country who felt that the Supreme Court stole that election for President Bush. That was the accusation that was made.

STEVENS: It's unfortunate that that kind of accusation was made, and that's one of the consequences of the decision that I think made it an unwise decision for the Court to get involved in that particular issue.

PELLEY: Was the decision of the Court a partisan decision?

STEVENS: I wouldn't really say that. I don't question the good faith of the people on the – the justices with whom I disagreed. But I think they were profoundly wrong.

PELLEY: Between interviews, Justice Stevens slipped us into places the public never sees. In his chambers, we saw a shrine to the legends of Chicago sports, and a picture of him swearing in the Vice President.

STEVENS: In fact, I didn't plan to bring this with me.

PELLEY: Turned out he was wearing the same suit and he still had the oath in his pocket. That is remarkable. In a sense, John Paul Stevens was born into a world of crime and justice, the Chicago of the 1920s. He was a rich kid – his father built the largest hotel in the world. But it was the time of Al Capone, and when Stevens was living here at the age of 12, gangsters came in and robbed the family at gunpoint.

STEVENS: And we were all lined up and they threatened to shoot everybody with a sub-machine gun.

PELLEY: As they faced a machine gun, a neighbor just happened to come to the door and the men fled. The age of 12 was eventful. His father lost his wealth in the Depression, and then the cops came for him. Your father was arrested for allegedly embezzling money from the family insurance business and using it to support the hotel. What was it like for you, as a boy 12 years old, when your father was convicted?

STEVENS: I never really thought he'd spend any time in jail, because I knew the kind of man he was.

PELLEY: That's when Stevens, at an early age, saw how a judge could change the world. On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that there was no credible evidence against his father. Did seeing your father wrongly convicted and then exonerated influence you as a judge at all?

STEVENS: It may well have, because it was an example of the system not working properly. And so I think every judge has to keep in mind the possibility that the system has not worked correctly in a particular case.

PELLEY: He drew on that lesson, 70 years later, in the war on terror, in a series of cases that are seen as among the most important of his career. The Bush Administration said prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had no right to lawyers or courts because they were held outside the U.S. But Stevens led a court majority that ruled that the U.S. naval base there was essentially American territory, so the prisoners did have legal rights. There is one inscription and one inscription only above the door to this building.

STEVENS: 'Equal Justice Under Law.'

PELLEY: And that applies to foreign nationals who may wish to do this country harm?

STEVENS: If they're to be prosecuted for crimes, they're entitled to a fair trial or fair procedures.

PELLEY: In another terror case, the stakes were much higher, because the suspect, Jose Padilla, was an American citizen. He was arrested in the U.S. on suspicion of terrorist ties, and put into a military brig for nearly four years without charges. He was held incommunicado, on nothing but the order of the President.

STEVENS: I thought that very possibility is a potential threat to every citizen in the United States. If you can be subjected to that kind of detention without access to courts or lawyers or the rest, it is a matter to be very concerned about.

PELLEY: The court majority dismissed Padilla's appeal on a technicality, but Stevens and three other justices had wanted to rule on Padilla's detention. Stevens aimed his dissent at the Bush administration, writing, 'If this nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants.'

DAVID SOUTER: John Stevens plays by the rules, but he knows how to throw a punch.

PELLEY: Justice David Souter retired from the court in 2009. He was often an ally of Stevens on the liberal wing, and he sided with Stevens in the Guantanamo and Padilla cases.

SOUTER: Justice Stevens, who was dissenting, said you may not, by this kind of secret transfer of an American citizen, defeat an American citizen's access to the civil courts to try the legality of his detention.

PELLEY: And how important was that?

SOUTER: It's as fundamental as any decision that's been made that I can think of on a citizen's liberty in my lifetime.

PELLEY: And it was Justice Stevens who stood up and said, 'Wait a minute, this has gone too far.'

SOUTER: That's what you got courts for. He was earning his salary.

PELLEY: He rendered a service to the country in those opinions?

SOUTER: Yeah, he – that made him one of the great judges.

PELLEY: I would imagine that the majority of the American people would probably disagree with you on these opinions.

STEVENS: That may very well be true. You know, it's a part of our job to write opinions, from time to time, that are not popular, and you know at the time they're not going to be popular.

PELLEY: Stevens took us on a tour of the hidden Supreme Court. This is the library that's usually open only to lawyers. It's not used much now that there's an internet. And this was extremely rare – network television has never been in the justices' robing room. It looks like a locker room.

STEVENS: Well, it is. It is a locker room.

PELLEY: It's here that all nine justices slip into their gear and, by tradition, shake hands at the start of the new term. We were with Stevens in June as he was preparing to hang up his robe for the last time, and it was then that Stevens told us he was worried about the direction of the court. The Supreme Court is supposed to uphold the Constitution, but throughout its history, there has always been tension when justices appear to rewrite laws that Congress was elected to write. 'Legislating from the bench,' it's called. Stevens says one of the worst examples came this year in a case called 'Citizens United.' The court majority overturned 100 years of law that limited corporate money in politics. You believe the court legislated from the bench?

STEVENS: Yes.

PELLEY: In 'Citizens United,' the majority gave corporations the right to spend as much as they want on political campaigns. The majority said that limiting money in politics is the same as limiting free speech. Where does the court make a mistake, in your view?

STEVENS: Well, which mistake do I want to emphasize?

PELLEY: You decide.

STEVENS: Well, you know, basically, an election is a debate. And most debates, you have rules. And I think Congress is the one that ought to make those rules. And if the debate is distorted by having one side have so much greater resources than the other, that, sometimes, may distort the ability to decide the debate on the merits. You want to be sure that it's a fair fight.

PELLEY: In 'Citizens United,' Stevens' opinion was a warning to the court. 'The decision,' he wrote, 'will, I fear, do damage to this institution.'

In our time with Justice Stevens, we expected to cover momentous events – October 1932 – but in his chambers, we didn't imagine we would get a ruling on one of the greatest controversies in baseball. We noticed a box score from game three of the 1932 World Series. Legend has it that the Yankees' Babe Ruth pointed to a spot in the Cubs' Wrigley Field, and nailed a home run right there. It's the famous 'called shot,' but whether it actually happened is ferociously debated. Remember the fateful year when Stevens was 12? Well, he was here when Ruth came to bat. And we figured it was a question of suitable national importance on which to render this justice's final ruling.

STEVENS: He took the bat in his right hand and pointed it right at the center field stands. And then, of course, the next pitch, he hit a home run in center field, and there's no doubt about the fact that he did point before he hit the ball.

PELLEY: So the 'called shot' actually happened?

STEVENS: Oh, there's no doubt about it.

PELLEY: That's your ruling?

STEVENS: That's my ruling.

PELLEY: Case closed.

STEVENS: That's the one ruling I will not be reversed on. I'm sure of that.
 

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC