U.S. Supreme Court

Stumbles in Justice Stevens’ Delivery Spur Retirement Speculation


Justice John Paul Stevens spoke with passion when he read aloud from his dissent for 20 minutes yesterday in a major campaign finance case—but several reporters noticed a difference in his delivery.

The Washington Post says the 89-year-old Stevens “read hesitantly”; the BLT: the Blog of Legal Times says he “spoke haltingly”; and USA Today says he spoke with “weariness” and “halting speech.”

The words of the 90-page dissent, however, were “razor sharp,” the Washington Post notes. Stevens, joined by three of the court’s other liberals, criticized the majority’s “glittering generality” that the First Amendment bars distinctions based on a speaker’s corporate identity. He argued that the decision striking down restrictions on corporate campaign spending had cast aside legislative efforts to protect elections from corruptive influences, according to the USA Today summary.

The CBS News Crossroads blog agreed that the language in Stevens’ dissent was forceful. “But it was striking to see him appear to stumble over words as he read it, to mispronounce words like ‘corruption’ and ‘allegation,’ to seem to lose his place in his summary, to often hit the microphone with his hand or his papers.”

The BLT said Stevens “seemed off his game” and confessed “it was a little painful to watch.” But the BLT and Crossroads both allowed that Stevens may simply have had a tough day.

Many of the stories noted that Stevens has hired only one law clerk for 2010, leading to speculation that the liberal justice will announce his retirement at the end of the term.

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