The High Court Ruled ‘Unwisely’ in Both Bush v. Gore in 2000 and Citizens United vs. FCC in 2009
Scott Pelley interviews Justice John Paul Stevens upon his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court after 35 years. He talks about the damage the court did to the institution and the country in both rulings.
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, “60 Minutes” and correspondent Scott Pelley hoped he would 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.
We met 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 at the court, 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.
When asked what the court should have done with Bush v. Gore, Stevens told Pelley, “It should’ve denied the stay, period.”
“And therefore let the recount go on in Florida?” Pelley asked.
“That’s right,” Stevens said.
Bush versus 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.
“And I remember both of us saying to one another, ‘Well, I guess we’re gonna 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,” Stevens remembered.
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,” Pelley pointed out.
“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,” Stevens said.
Asked if the court’s decision was a partisan one, Stevens said, “I wouldn’t really say that. I don’t question the good faith of the people, the justices with whom I disagreed. But I think they were profoundly wrong.”
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.
It is called “legislating from the bench.” 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.
Stevens told Pelley he thought the court had legislated from the bench.
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?” Pelley asked.
“Well which mistake do I want to emphasize?” Stevens asked.
“You decide,” Pelley said.
“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,” Stevens explained.
In Citizens United, Stevens’ opinion was a warning to the court: the decision, he wrote, “Will, I fear, do damage to this institution.”
© 2010, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.