Thursday, April 24, 2014

Justice takes the long view -- April 24, 2014 column


At a party, I ran into a friend who retired a few months ago after a stellar journalism career in Washington.   

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“I’m still trying to figure out how to be retired,” he said. “I start every morning going over what I don’t need to do that day.” No commute downtown…no speed-reading the newspaper…no worries that something is taking too long, he said.  

This prize-winning journalist looked sheepish, as if he’d been put out to pasture instead of liberated.

In America, you’re nobody unless you’re crazy busy. And that’s crazy wrong.

Learning to be retired shouldn’t mean learning to be obsolete. Consider the retirement of John Paul Stevens. You may have caught the former Supreme Court justice, who just turned 94, on the media interview circuit. He’s a soft-spoken gentleman who favors bow ties and civility in an age of the rant. His new book is “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.”

Nominated to the court by Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975, Stevens became one of the court’s most reliable liberals. He resigned four years ago after nearly 35 years on the bench and wrote a memoir.

After taking time to read newspapers and other publications and to reflect on the court’s rulings when he was in the minority, Stevens turned in his latest book to where he thinks the court has gone wrong. He makes the case for change through an almost impossible route, amending the Constitution.

His proposals on the death penalty, guns, campaign finance and gerrymandering are making waves. But Stevens concedes that none is likely to become part of the Constitution soon; eventually, maybe. Give him credit for taking the long view.

His book began to take shape after the shooting massacre of school children in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, he told Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker.

“I read a newspaper story that said the federal database of criminal records might be incomplete because of a decision of the Supreme Court,” Stevens said. The court had ruled in 1997 that the federal government could not make states participate in background checks for gun sales.

“I thought if that decision might be responsible for a situation like the one in Newtown, they ought to change it. That got me to thinking that there had to be other rules that ought to be changed,” Stevens told Toobin.

Stevens proposes allowing Congress to force states to participate in background checks. He would limit the right to bear arms by adding five words to the Second Amendment: “when serving in the militia.”

The revised Second Amendment would read: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the militia shall not be infringed.

“Emotional claims that the right to possess deadly weapons is so important that it is protected by the federal Constitution distort intelligent debate about the wisdom of particular aspects of proposed legislation designed to minimize the slaughter caused by the prevalence of guns in private hands,” Stevens writes.

Stevens still holds the admirable idea that the primary duty of someone in public office is “to make impartial decisions, not motivated by personal profit or personal gain or advantage” to his or her political party.

When he read a newspaper story about a Maryland redistricting plan in 2011 that benefited Democrats, he was incensed. In an interview on, Stevens called the redistricting plan “outrageously unconstitutional.”

He proposes to prohibit gerrymandering -- legislators drawing state and congressional districts with the goal of boosting the political strength of the party in power.

“It doesn’t take a genius,” Stevens told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, to see that the shapes of some congressional and state legislative districts are fishy.

Reading and reflecting require time. They’re the first things we throw overboard in our multi-tasking lives and the last we retrieve when daily pressures relent.

Working or retired, we all could benefit from thinking about the country we want. Whether you agree or disagree with Stevens, his ideas deserve the same serious thought he has given them and intelligent debate.  

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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