10 Questions for John Paul Stevens

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens on guns, the death penalty and doubting Shakespeare

  • David Johnson for TIME

    Justice John Paul Stevens

    Let's start with the most controversial stuff. Why bow ties?

    I have difficulty tying the four-in-hand. The small part gets around in front.

    In your book Five Chiefs, you write about how you voted to reinstate the death penalty but would not now. Why?

    In 1976 those of us who were the critical voters in favor of upholding the death penalty understood that it would be applied in a very narrow set of cases--really outrageous crimes. And we also assumed there would be careful procedures in place that would minimize the risk of making mistakes. Over the years, the court expanded the category of cases in which the death penalty is permissible. And they modified some of the procedures that protected the defendant, like allowing victim-impact statements. Basically, they changed the rules.

    How do you feel about the Citizens United decision, which allows corporations to spend as much as they want on campaign advertising?

    I feel strongly that the court made a serious mistake in finding that money is the equivalent of protected speech. If followed out to its logical conclusion, that would have provided First Amendment protection to the Watergate burglars. They were financed with campaign expenditures.

    One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 in the U.S. is incarcerated. Is that a judicial-system problem?

    The use of mandatory minimum statutes has had a very adverse effect on the overall system, and I think generally, the so-called war on drugs has emphasized more-severe punishment than is appropriate throughout the country. There are some instances where penalties are so disproportionate that they could well violate the Eighth Amendment.

    If you could fix one thing about the American judicial system, what would it be?

    I would make all my dissents into majority opinions.

    Is there one in particular?

    I would change the interpretation of the Second Amendment. The court got that quite wrong. Gun policy should be handled by legislatures and by states, not by federal judges appointed for life.

    How did the arrival of women change the Supreme Court?

    I can't really identify any change in jurisprudence that is attributable just to that fact. In fact, the major change in terms of gender discrimination came about by a decision written by Warren Burger holding that discrimination against women in appointing an executor of an estate violated the Constitution.

    You note that Burger and John Roberts are both good-looking. How important is that in a Chief Justice?

    Not terribly, but it's a strong plus.

    In your opinion, who wrote Shakespeare's plays?

    That's a very close question. I think there are good questions about a man who never seemed to have any correspondence with his contemporaries about the plays. When he passed, there were no eulogies to him, and when you visit his home and look around for evidence of a scholarly person, there are no books in the house.

    Is there any other judging you'd like to do--Miss Universe, Dancing with the Stars?

    I wouldn't qualify for Dancing with the Stars. I'm sure of that. I'm not sure my competence in the judicial area qualifies me to become an expert in any other.

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