How Justice Stevens Protected The Rights Of The Accused

By Natalie Rodriguez | July 21, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

The late Justice John Paul Stevens regularly championed access to justice issues, including the rights of criminal defendants. (Jay Mallin | For Law360)

Along with his humble tenor and penchant for bow ties, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens also built a reputation as a defender of the rights of individuals caught in the criminal justice system and of access to the courts.

Over his nearly 35 years on the bench, the retired justice, who died Tuesday at the age of 99, crafted several opinions that either broadened individual rights within the justice system or protected those rights from assault.

From chipping away at capital punishment efforts in complicated situations to defending habeas corpus during wartime, Justice Stevens did not veer away from pulling together majority opinions on difficult cases.

"I think he was very much an advocate and at the forefront of the court in terms of access to justice," Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law and founder of the Civil Justice Research Initiative, told Law360.

Three of the justice's most cited opinions deal with access to justice or criminal justice reform issues, according to Law360's analysis of data from Ravel Law.

Stevens' opinions might have served as the foundation for new criminal justice jurisprudence in the near future if the high court's most recent appointments had not veered so conservative, according to Chemerinsky.

"I think now his views on access to justice will be reflected in the dissents and perhaps some future majority," said Chemerinsky.

After his retirement in 2010, Justice Stevens continued to be a regular advocate for criminal justice reforms and access to justice issues.

In 2011, the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Representation Project named an award after him and the justice continued to speak out on the issues that had preoccupied him on the bench.

"He was emphatic always in asking this question: Is what the court about to do fair to the injured party? He was brilliant at interpreting the law in a way to reach what he considered to be the fair result," retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said in a statement on Wednesday.

Here are five times Stevens came to the defense of access to justice.

Williams v. Taylor

Terry Williams was facing the death penalty in Virginia after being convicted of robbery and murder, but he urged the Supreme Court in 1999 to toss his sentence, arguing that his counsel's unprofessionalism violated his constitutional right to representation.

Stevens headlined the complicated 6-3 majority opinion in which several of the majority justices joined only on certain parts of the five-part judgment. Despite some disagreement on the technicalities, the court found that Virginia should set aside Williams' death penalty sentence in light of his ineffective representation during trial.

Part of the opinion came down to the court agreeing that Williams' original counsel had failed to find and present mitigating evidence that could have affected his sentencing.

"The Virginia Supreme Court did not entertain that possibility. It thus failed to accord appropriate weight to the body of mitigation evidence available to trial counsel," the opinion said.

In Stevens' recently released book, "The Making of a Justice," he noted that his views on criminal justice issues were largely influenced by the prosecution and conviction of his father, which was later overturned on appeal.

The experience showed him "how innocent people could be wrongly treated," according to Chemerinsky.

Apprendi v. New Jersey

Charles C. Apprendi Jr. had pled guilty to a firearm possession charge that carried a five- to 10-year prison term after shooting into the home of an African American family. Afterwards, the prosecutor in the New Jersey case filed for an enhanced sentence based on a state hate crime statute. The lower court judge, finding Apprendi's actions racially motivated, sentenced him to 12 years.

Justice Stevens delivered the 5-4 opinion that held that the New Jersey statute had denied Apprendi's due process rights. The court held that any fact that could increase the penalty of a crime had to be submitted and proved to a jury.

"The New Jersey procedure challenged in this case is an unacceptable departure from the jury tradition that is an indispensable part of our criminal justice system," said Stevens' opinion.

Stevens' opinion additionally said that while trial practices can change over time, they must keep to the principles underlying the constitution's right to a jury and for that jury to have all the facts necessary to make their decision beyond a reasonable doubt.

For Shon Hopwood, a Georgetown University law professor, the case inspired him to join the profession after his own conviction for bank robbery.

"His fine opinion in Apprendi v. New Jersey was what got me started studying law from a prison law library," Hopwood said in a social media post on Thursday.

Rasul v. Bush

Justice Stevens was consistently a defender of habeas corpus, according to Chemerinsky. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he penned several key opinions on the legal rights of alleged terrorists.

In Rasul v. Bush, 14 Guantanamo detainees who had not been formally charged petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, requiring that the government demonstrate the legal basis for their detention. The government claimed that since the detainees were on Cuban land leased to the government, the U.S. courts lacked jurisdiction to consider the petition.

In the 6-3 decision from 2003 penned by Justice Stevens, the court ruled that the government's jurisdiction and control outweighed the point that it was Cuban land.

"Considering that [a relevant habeas corpus] statute draws no distinction between Americans and aliens held in federal custody, there is little reason to think that Congress intended the geographical coverage of the statute to vary depending on the detainee's citizenship," Justice Stevens said in the opinion.

Three years later, Justice Stevens continued to build on the Rasul jurisprudence when he penned the 5-3 decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. In this case, the court found that the pending habeas petition for Osama Bin Laden's former chauffeur Salim Ahmed Hamdan meant he could not be subject to the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, which sought to remove the court's jurisdiction on Guantanamo detainees' habeas petitions.

Stevens acknowledged that the court assumed, as it must, that the allegations the government made against Hamdan were true and noted that Hamdan was not challenging the government's power to detain him.

"But in undertaking to try Hamdan and subject him to criminal punishment, the executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law that prevails in this jurisdiction," Justice Stevens said in the opinion.

United States v. Booker

In separate drug possession cases involving Freddie Booker and Duncan Fanfan, lower court judges had followed the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines to come to two different conclusions on their ability to increase the sentences with a so-called "enhancement" for additional drugs found on or near the individuals.

In Booker's case, the judge determined he could enhance his sentence, while in Fanfan's case, the judge determined he could not enhance the sentence. Booker appealed his judgment, while the federal government appealed Fanfan's sentencing.

In a 5-4 opinion on the consolidated cases, the court found the sentencing guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment's right to trial by jury.

Justice Stevens, who delivered the opinion of the court in part, said both sentences were unconstitutional because they were based partly on facts determined by judges rather than juries.

"We recognize ... that in some cases jury factfinding may impair the most expedient and efficient sentencing of defendants. But the interest in fairness and reliability protected by the right to a jury trial — a common-law right that defendants enjoyed for centuries and that is now enshrined in the Sixth Amendment — has always outweighed the interest in concluding trials swiftly," Justice Stevens said in his opinion.

Booker and Apprendi were both part of a larger jurisprudence that Stevens helped mold, which "forced reconsideration of the application of sentencing guidelines" and extended the Sixth Amendment's right to a jury trial, said Christopher Smith, a Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice professor, in a 2006 Suffolk University Law Review article. 

Sentencing guidelines are "several recent examples of criminal justice issues that bear the imprint of Stevens' analysis and values," added Smith, who also wrote a book titled "John Paul Stevens: Defender of Rights in Criminal Justice."

Baze v. Rees

Over his time on the bench, Justice Stevens went from upholding the death penalty in 1976 to slowly chipping away at the circumstances in which states could execute defendants, penning opinions that found executing a mentally disabled criminal to be "cruel and unusual" punishment and writing against the execution of minors.

However, in this 2008 case involving two Kentucky inmates' challenge to a four-drug lethal injection protocol, Justice Stevens came out fully in support of ending capital punishment.

In a concurrence with the 7-2 decision, Justice Stevens agreed with the court that the drug protocol violated the Eight Amendment's decree against cruel and unusual punishment because one of the drugs could mask signs of distress.

He further added that opinions from Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had persuaded him that the country and the court continues to retain the death penalty as a "product of habit and inattention."

He outlined several concerns of how the death penalty could violate a person's constitutional rights to justice, including the risk of errors.

"The conclusion that I have reached with regard to the constitutionality of the death penalty itself makes my decision in this case particularly difficult," Justice Stevens said in his opinion.

—Additional reporting by Daniel Wilson. Editing by Kelly Duncan.

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