Shortly after William O. Douglas resigned from the Supreme Court, one of the Justices privately admitted that he and his colleagues were "concerned" that the nominee would be a Senator chosen not for judicial qualities but because he could be easily confirmed. Other observers fretted that President Ford might seek, as Nixon had (and indeed many Presidents), to wrench the court toward his own views. In fact, past controversies over court nominees so warped expectations that Ford prompted unmerited surprise last week when he announced his choice: John Paul Stevens, 55, a Chicagoan generally rated among the top dozen of the nation's 97 U.S. appeals court judges.
By all accounts, it was a straightforward process of selection. A few hours after Douglas' resignation, Ford summoned Attorney General Edward Levi and White House Counsel Philip Buchen to tell them he wanted a list of the best-qualified nominees available. He preferred someone no older than 55, the President said, and specifically excluded political affiliations, race and sex as criteria. Stevens' name was already on a standby list prepared by Levi weeks before at Ford's request. The very next day, renewing a practice downgraded by his predecessor, Ford sent the names of eleven potential nominees to the American Bar Association's committee on the federal judiciary. Stevens, and some of the others, got top rating.
Two women candidates, though lat er added to the list, were never leading contenders, and the choice eventually narrowed down to half a dozen menall but one of them federal judges. Ford began reading selections from their opinions, and the day after Thanksgiving, he again called in Levi and Buchen for a two-hour conference at which he reached the conclusion that Stevens was the most impressive candidate.
Both liberal and conservative legal authorities praised the nominee. Stevens, who says he is "a Republican, but not a very active one," is a member of an old Chicago family. He was Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Chicago (where Illinois Senator Charles Percy was a classmate and friend) and first in his class at Northwestern Law School. After clerking for Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge, Stevens entered private practice, specializing in antitrust law. In 1970 Percy got him an appointment to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Swing Vote. Stevens had open heart surgery in 1974, but continues to golf, play tennis, swim, fly his own Cessna, garden and plug away toward life-master status as a duplicate bridge player. In court, he is known as a stickler for proper procedure. Dissenting from a 1971 decision upholding the Wisconsin legislature's use of its power to jail Activist Priest James Groppi on contempt charges, Stevens wrote that to "resort to procedural expediency may facilitate an occasional conviction, but it may also make martyrs of common criminals."