Do Conservative Justices Have a Partisan Agenda, PBS's Woodruff Asks Liberal Ex-Justice

On Monday’s PBS NewsHour, anchor Judy Woodruff sat down for a conversation with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and she tried to get the amiable, elderly jurist to criticize his more conservative former colleagues. Stevens, to his credit, didn’t take the bait.

The interview focused on Stevens’ new book about six amendments he would like to see added to the Constitution. Near the end of the discussion, Woodruff sought to make waves by getting Stevens to charge conservatives on the court with a partisan agenda:


When you look at all of these changes that you’d like to see in the Constitution, and whether it’s campaign finance, redistricting or something else, do you believe the more conservative members of the Supreme Court have a partisan agenda? Do you think they are actually trying to get conservatives elected to office?
 

Stevens, however, refused to ascribe improper motives to his former colleagues:
 

No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t question their motives at all. I think they have come to incorrect conclusions, but I do think they have — where they’ve had chances to take a different tack, I think they have acted incorrectly. But I would not suggest that any of them were improperly motivated.
 

At no point did Woodruff ask Stevens whether he thought the liberal justices on the Court had a partisan agenda. Of course, that would have been an awkward question given that Stevens was “one of the Court’s most outspoken liberal voices,” as Woodruff said at the start of the segment. But does she really think that conservative justices, but not liberal ones, rule based on partisanship?

Woodruff seemed to be largely sympathetic to Stevens’ aims. Near the beginning of the interview, she enthused, “You’re essentially taking on the modern Supreme Court!” When Stevens calmly replied that he wanted to correct “ incorrect decisions that were profoundly unwise, and really contrary to a lot of things that our country stands for,” Woodruff prodded him to show more passion, saying “You’re speaking in a mild mannered way, Justice Stevens, but I can tell you feel pretty strongly about this.”

Suffice it to say, Stevens's call for constitutional amendments skews significantly to the left in terms of policy prescriptions. As a counterweight to promoting the Stevens book, Woodruff could consider bringing Mark Levin on to discuss his New York Times best-selling work, The Liberty Amendments.

But we expect that's about as likely to happen as any of the Court's liberal justices pulling a reverse Stevens and ending up as staunchly conservative "original intent" justices.

Below is a transcript of the relevant portions of the interview:

 

JUDY WOODRUFF: You single out rules, Justice Stevens, that were handed down, as you point out, by a slim majority of the court over the last 40 years that you say — and I’m quoting you now — “have had such a profound and unfortunate impact on our basic law, that resort to the process of amendment is warranted.”

You’re essentially taking on the modern Supreme Court.

FMR. JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: Well, because I have been trying to do that for a good many years.

But I think there were incorrect — incorrect decisions that were profoundly unwise, and really contrary to a lot of things that our country stands for. And I think they should be changed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re speaking in a mild mannered way, Justice Stevens, but I can tell you feel pretty strongly about this.

FMR. JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: Well, I do.

(LAUGHTER)

FMR. JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: There’s no doubt about that

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s talk about some of the ways that you would like to see the Constitution changed.

Among other things, you want an amendment that would require the states not to draw legislative or congressional districts in a way to increase partisan strength. We know, clearly, there is partisan redistricting. But most redistricting is done around where populations live, whether it’s an urban area, a suburban area. Why isn’t this something that is better left to the political process?

FMR. JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: Well, because the political process has misfired.

And in a number of states, the dominant party has redistricted with its own objective of strengthening its control of the state in the future and of its congressional delegation at the time by drawing bizarre districts that have no purpose whatsoever, other than to enhance the political strength of the party in power.

Now, it’s my very profound view that a person in public office has a primary duty to follow — to make impartial decisions, not motivated by personal profit or personal gain or advantage just to the political party of whom — of which he is a member.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying take it out of politics?

FMR. JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: Well, not entirely. But don’t allow districts to be drawn for no reason other than political advantage.

There are times when political — political considerations can be taken into account in making certain minor adjustments such as that.



But the examples that I talked about in the book are examples of districts that are bizarre in shape and have absolutely — obviously no justification, other than the impermissible justification of partisan advantage to those who drafted the districts.

***

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another controversy you’re jumping right into is campaign finance. You believe Congress should be able to put limits on the amount of money candidates spend on their campaigns…

FMR. JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … and that the Supreme Court has made mistakes in several decisions, allowing corporations, labor unions to advocate and spend money on candidates.

Considering all the court has done, Justice Stevens, to open the door for huge money to pour into American politics, including the recent McCutcheon decision, what effect does all this have on American politics?

FMR. JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: Well, I don’t think it’s a healthy effect. And I think it’s a change from what the people who direct — framed our basic government envisioned. For the — as the chief justice said, I think, in the first sentence of his opinion in the McCutcheon case the other day, there is nothing more important than participation in electing our representatives.

But the law that developed in that case and in a number of other cases involved not electing the representatives of the people who voted for them, but electing representatives of — in other jurisdictions where the financing is used. In other words, that was a case that involved the right of the — of an individual to spend as much of its money as he wanted to elect representatives of other people. He didn’t use any of that money to elect his own representatives.

And I think that’s a distortion of the concept that we started with many, many years ago.

***

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you look at all of these changes that you’d like to see in the Constitution, and whether it’s campaign finance, redistricting or something else, do you believe the more conservative members of the Supreme Court have a partisan agenda? Do you think they are actually trying to get conservatives elected to office?

FMR. JUSTICE JOHN PAUL STEVENS: No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t question their motives at all. I think they have come to incorrect conclusions, but I do think they have — where they’ve had chances to take a different tack, I think they have acted incorrectly. But I would not suggest that any of them were improperly motivated.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.