Thank You Justice Stevens

April 9, 2010

Justice John Paul Stevens has sent a letter to President Obama announcing his retirement from the Supreme Court at the end of the Court's current term. This is hardly an unexpected event-Stevens is 89. Still, it is a poignant moment. Stevens has been a tireless champion of civil liberties, including freedom of conscience. He was a stalwart defender of church-state separation, and through his persuasive powers he was often able to garner a Court majority to support a proper reading of the Establishment Clause. Even when he was not successful, his dissents often took perfect aim at the flaws in the prevailing opinion. In the Zelman case, which upheld government-funded vouchers that could be used for parochial schools on the ground that the students' parents, not the government, were choosing to support the schools, Stevens pointedly observed in his dissent that that "the voluntary character of the private choice to prefer a parochial education over an education in the public school system seems to me quite irrelevant to the question whether the government's choice to pay for religious indoctrination is constitutionally permissible." In the same opinion, Justice Stevens also underscored the importance of church-state separation: "Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundations of our democracy."

We will miss Justice Stevens. We can only hope that his replacement will be as strong an advocate of our constitutional rights.