Review: Five Chiefs by John Paul Stevens

John Paul Stevens’ tenure as an associate justice of the Supreme Court lasted 34 years, 6 months, and 11 days, the capstone of a career that included time as a law clerk to Supreme Court justice Wiley Rutledge, judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and private attorney. Throughout his lifetime of legal service, Stevens interacted with some of the most respected and prolific legal minds in modern American history, including five Chief Justices of the United States.

Five Chiefs, as the name implies, relays Stevens’ experiences with these jurists. But these anecdotes about Chief Justices Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts are merely scenery, serving as a (successful) motif by which Stevens conveys the origins and evolution of his own jurisprudence. And this is what makes Stevens’ newly released memoir so fascinating: It offers an extraordinary glimpse into the mind of a man who once wielded one-ninth of the legal might of America’s highest court.

Five Chiefs is not a peering behind the velvet curtain into the sacred traditions of the High Court in the spirit of Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine, nor is it a dogmatic, ideological manifesto – the template of most American political memoirs. Rather, it reads as a series of diary entries, conveying his authentic sentiments and appraisals as Stevens reflects on his 92 years. The tone of the anecdotes ranges from the utterly trivial (Stevens devotes multiple pages to his opposition to the rearrangement of furniture in the justices’ conference room) to surprisingly frustrated (Stevens condemns opinions by the Rehnquist Court propping up what he views as the antediluvian doctrine of sovereign immunity). Stevens also offers unusually frank assessments of his colleagues’ performances, including bluntly critical commentary of Chief Justices Burger and Rehnquist. (The current Chief, however, receives higher marks.)

Perhaps the best adjective to describe Five Chiefs is honest. The personal style of the work conveys a strong sense of heartfelt sincerity, rare for an institution so ensconced in objective tradition as the Court. There is comfort to be taken, then, in Stevens’ conclusion, where he states that, despite the polarizing nature of the disputes they must resolve, he cannot recall a single instance of personal unkindness or harsh words being exchanged among the justices.