John Paul Stevens on Crime

Supreme Court Justice (nominated by Pres. Ford 1975)


Government is responsible for abuses in private prisons

In Malesko v. Correctional Services Corp., 2000, an inmate who served time in a halfway house operated on behalf of the Bureau of Prisons by a private corporation sought to sue the corporation for injuries that he suffered in the halfway house. Sotomayor held that the inmate could bring an action against a private corporation acting under color of federal law. Such a result, she explained, "provides redress for constitutional rights." The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed by a 5-to-4 vote, in 2001. In an opinion by then-Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Court held that [the courts should be] "concerned solely with deterring the unconstitutional acts of individual officers." Justice Stevens--joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer-- dissented. In their view, because the violation at issue "was committed by a federal agent--a private corporation employed by the Bureau of Prisons to perform functions that would otherwise be performed by individual employees of the Federal Government."
Source: ScotusBlog.com, "Civil Litigation" , Jul 25, 2009

Unsparing in objections to the death penalty

Stevens, a bowtie-wearing Midwesterner, is warm and gracious, as befits his Midwestern roots. Extremely smart and creative, Stevens, appointed by President Ford in the wake of Watergate and the resignation of President Nixon, began his service on the Court as a bit of an odd man out. He seemed to look at legal problems differently, more creatively. But in due course he hit his stride, and he has been unabashedly liberal in approach for the past 2 decades. He is an untiring supporter of abortion rights, uncompromising in defense of a separationist approach to church-state issues, inclined to support the rights of criminal defendants, unsparing in objections to the death penalty. In short, he is a dream justice by the standards of the N.Y.Times editorial board and the cultural elite. Even better for Warren Court admirers, Stevens will use judicial power to achieve what he thinks is right and just.

The result is that Justice Stevens, even with his great talents, has largely been marginalized.

Source: First Among Equals, by Kenneth Starr, p. 43 , Oct 10, 2002

Favors defendants’ rights

Stevens favors abortion rights, affirmative action, and defendants’ rights. His 1995 opinion struck down state term limits on candidates for congress.
Source: Reuters article in Boston Globe, p. A45 , Dec 1, 2000

Statistical racial sentencing disparities unconstitutional

Warren McCleskey was convicted of armed robbery & murder in Georgia. McCleskey was African American; his victim was a white Atlanta Police Officer. The jury recommended the death penalty.

On appeal, McCleskey alleged that the state's capital sentencing process was racially discriminatory, in violation of the 14th Amendment. Statistical analysis in the "Baldus study" indicated individuals convicted of murdering whites were 4.3 times more likely to receive the death penalty than those with black victims.

The Supreme Court dismissed evidence of general disparities in sentencing, such as the Baldus study, as "an inevitable part of our criminal justice system." (Majority opinion by Powell; joined by Rehnquist, White, O'Connor, Scalia). The dissent found that even if capital punishment were constitutional, this could hardly be so where it was demonstrably biased against members of a particular race. (Dissent opinion by Brennan, joined by Marshall. Blackmun, Stevens)

Source: Wikipedia on 1987 SCOTUS 5-4 ruling in McCleskey v. Kemp , Apr 22, 1987

Black defendants have Constitutional right to blacks on jury

James Batson was an African American man convicted of burglary in a Kentucky circuit court by a jury composed entirely of white jurors. During jury selection, the prosecutor peremptorily challenged all four black persons, and a jury composed only of white persons was selected. The defense counsel moved to discharge the whole jury on the ground that the prosecutor's removal of the black jurors violated the Constitutional right to a jury drawn from a cross section of the community.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision in Batson's favor. The court ruled that the defendant first must show that he is a member of a recognizable racial group, and that the prosecutor has removed from the jury pool members of the defendant's race, [and that Batson met those criteria]. (Majority opinion written by Powell, joined by Brennan, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor.)

The dissenting opinion concluded that the majority misapplied equal protection doctrine. (Dissent by Rehnquist, joined by Burger)

Source: Wikipedia on 1986 SCOTUS 7-2 ruling in Batson v. Kentucky , Apr 30, 1986

Fleeing police is not in itself sufficient to allow search.

Justice Stevens wrote the dissent on ILLINOIS v. WARDLOW on Jan 12, 2000:

Respondent Wardlow fled upon seeing police vehicles converge on an area of Chicago known for heavy narcotics trafficking. When Officers caught up with him on the street, they conducted a protective pat-down search for weapons because in their experience there were usually weapons in the vicinity of narcotics transactions. Discovering a handgun, the officers arrested Wardlow. The State Supreme Court overturned Wardlow’s conviction, determining that sudden flight in a high crime area does not create a reasonable suspicion justifying a stop because flight may simply be an exercise of the right to “go on one’s way.”


(Rehnquist, joined by O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas)
The officers’ actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment. An officer who has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot may conduct a brief, investigatory stop. While “reasonable suspicion” is a less demanding standard than probable cause, there must be at least a minimal level of objective justification for the stop. An individual’s presence in a “high crime area” is not enough, but in this case, it was also Wardlow’s unprovoked flight that aroused the officers’ suspicion. Nervous, evasive behavior is another pertinent factor in determining reasonable suspicion.


(Stevens, joined by Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer)
Illinois asks for authorizing the temporary detention of anyone who flees at the mere sight of a police officer. Respondent Wardlow counters by asking us to adopt the opposite rule--that the fact that a person flees upon seeing the police can never, by itself, be sufficient to justify a temporary investigative stop.

Although I agree with the Court’s rejection of both rules proffered by the parties, unlike the Court, I am persuaded that in this case the brief testimony of the officer who seized respondent does not justify the conclusion that he had reasonable suspicion to make the stop.

Source: Supreme Court case 98-1036 argued on Nov 2, 1999

No death penalty without considering mitigating evidence.

Justice Stevens wrote the Court's decision on WILLIAMS v. WARDEN TAYLOR on Apr 18, 2000:

A Virginia jury convicted petitioner Williams of robbery and capital murder, and, after a sentencing hearing, found a probability of future dangerousness and unanimously fixed his punishment at death, applying the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

In habeas corpus proceedings, a federal trial judge [overruled] the death sentence [because it] was constitutionally infirm on ineffective-assistance grounds, identifying five categories of mitigating evidence that counsel had failed to introduce. The Virginia Supreme Court then re-imposed the death penalty.


(Stevens, joined by O’Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer)
The death penalty conviction is overturned on ineffective-assistance grounds.


(O’Connor, joined by Rehnquist, Kennedy, Thomas, and in part by Scalia)
The section of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act intended to shorten the time between sentencing and executions in capital punishment cases is upheld.


(Rehnquist, joined by Thomas and Scalia)
I agree with the Court’s interpretation upholding the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act but disagree with its decision to grant habeas relief in this case. The murder was just one act in a crime spree that lasted most of Williams’s life. There was strong evidence that petitioner would continue to be a danger to society, both in and out of prison. A jury would not have been swayed by potential mitigating evidence demonstrating that petitioner had a terrible childhood and a low IQ.
Source: Supreme Court case 98-8384 argued on Oct 4, 1999

Can't lengthen prison sentences retroactively.

Justice Stevens joined the dissent on GARNER v. JONES on Mar 28, 2000:

Respondent Jones escaped while serving a life sentence for murder, committed another murder, and was sentenced to a second life term. Georgia law at that time required considering inmates serving life sentences for parole after three years, but the law was later amended to eight years. The Georgia Parole Board has the discretion to shorten that interval, but declined to do so in Jones’ case, citing his multiple offenses. Jones sued, claiming that retroactive application violated the Ex Post Facto Clause [which disallows laws that are implemented retroactively].


(Kennedy, joined by Rehnquist, O’Connor, Thomas, Breyer, and in part by Scalia)
Georgia parole officials had the right to extend the time a state prison inmate must wait before he or she can be considered for parole. Georgia law gives the Parole Board broad discretion in determining whether an inmate should receive early release. Such discretion does not displace the Ex Post Facto Clause’s protections, but the idea of discretion is that it has the capacity, and the obligation, to change and adapt based on experience.


(Souter, joined by Stevens and Ginsburg)
A change in parole policy violates the Ex Post Facto Clause if it creates a “sufficient” or substantial risk that the class affected by the change will serve longer sentences as a result. The changed rule threatens to increase punishment for all life-sentenced prisoners, not just those who would have been paroled at or before the average time. Georgia has given us nothing to suggest the contrary. And statements by the Parole Board indicate that its policies were intended to increase time served in prison. There is no indication that the board adopted the new policy merely to obviate useless hearings or save administrative resources, the justification the Court accepted in the Morales case. Thus, I dissent.
Source: Supreme Court case 99-137 argued on Jan 11, 2000

Life-sentence alternative should affect death sentence.

Justice Stevens wrote the dissent on RAMDASS v. ANGELONE on Jun 2, 2000:

Petitioner Ramdass was sentenced to death in Virginia for murder. In two other cases, Ramdass had been found guilty of two armed robberies. Arguing for a life sentence in the murder trial, Ramdass claimed that his prior convictions made him ineligible for parole under Virginia’s three-strikes law. The prosecutor argued for a death sentence because of future dangerousness. The court sentenced Ramdass to death, without the jury being told that the defendant is parole-ineligible.


(Rehnquist, joined by O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas)
The death sentence is valid, even though Ramdass was not allowed to tell jurors that he would not be eligible for parole if sentenced to life in prison.


In Simmons v. South Carolina (1994), a majority of the Court held that “where the defendant’s future dangerousness is in issue… due process entitles the defendant to inform the capital sentencing jury that he is parole-ineligible.” [This precedent does not apply here because], although Ramdass had been found guilty of the armed robbery, that verdict did not count as a prior conviction because final judgment had not yet been entered on that verdict at the time of Ramdass’ capital sentencing proceeding.


(Stevens, joined by Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer)
There is an acute unfairness in permitting a State to rely on a recent conviction to establish a defendant’s future dangerousness while simultaneously permitting the State to deny that there was such a conviction when the defendant attempts to argue that he is parole-ineligible and therefore not a future danger. Even the most miserly reading of Simmons supports the conclusion that Ramdass was denied the right to meet the State’s case against him. The plurality’s criticism [is] formalistic; there are times when judgment is far more important than technical symmetry. I respectfully dissent.
Source: Supreme Court case 99-7000 argued on Apr 18, 2000

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Other Justices on Crime: John Paul Stevens on other issues:
Samuel Alito(since 2006)
Stephen Breyer(since 1994)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg(since 1993)
Elena Kagan(since 2010)
Anthony Kennedy(since 1988)
John Roberts(since 2005)
Sonia Sotomayor(since 2009)
Clarence Thomas(since 1991)

Former Justices:
Merrick Garland(nominated 2016)
Antonin Scalia(1986-2016)
John Paul Stevens(1975-2010)
David Souter(1990-2009)
Sandra Day O'Connor(1981-2006)
William Rehnquist(1975-2005)

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Page last updated: Feb 01, 2020