“Five Chiefs” by Justice John Paul Stevens Offers Unique Perspective
Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir by John Paul Stevens
John Paul Stevens is one of the longest serving justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. His book, Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir, provides a broad sweep of the history of the country’s highest court from the unique perspective of one of its members.
Justice Stevens served on the Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010. Prior to joining the bench, he also served as a law clerk for the Court and a practicing anti-trust lawyer. Through these experiences, Justice Stevens developed personal relationships with five Chief Justices — Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts. They are the subject of his memoir. As Stevens acknowledges, his “memories primarily reflect a different point of view: that of another justice’s law clerk for Vinson; of a practicing lawyer for Warren; of a circuit judge and junior justice for Burger; of a contemporary colleague for Rehnquist; and of an observer of superb advocacy before Roberts became a colleague.”
Overall, Five Chiefs provides a fascinating inside look at how the Court operates, from the assignment of opinions to the physical shape of the bench. Justice Stevens recounts his own steep learning curve as a junior justice, when he forgot his duty as doorkeeper, forcing the more senior member of the Court to answer a knock. He writes:
That humiliating lesson taught me to keep track of priorities—for the junior justice, there is one responsibility even more important than being fully informed about the views of your colleagues: remembering that you are what Tom Clark described as the most highly paid doorman in the country.
While there are a few humorous anecdotes and bits of gossip, the book focuses largely on the leadership style and jurisprudence that shaped the tenure of each Chief Justice. In profiling each Chief Justice, Justice Stevens highlights both their successes and failures. Five Chiefs also examines the key decisions rendered under each Chief Justice and, in doing so, touches on a range of issues, from freedom of speech and affirmative action to capital punishment and sovereign immunity.
While Justice Stevens spends the bulk of the book talking about other justices and their legal philosophies, he also offers his own perspective. Of Chief Justice Roberts opinion in Citizens United v. FEC, Stevens writes:
Given the fact that most of his colleagues joined the chief in his funeral-speech opinion, perhaps I should give him a passing grade in First Amendment law. But for reasons that it took me ninety pages to explain in my dissent in the Citizens United campaign finance case, his decision to join the majority in that case prevents me from doing so.
Even when his disagrees, Stevens is tactful and fact-based, much like his demeanor on the Court. His memoir reminds us that he is not only one of the longest-tenured justices, but also one of the most respected.
Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir is available through Amazon.com, Audible.com, and many other booksellers.