What About Starting Stevens and O’Connor Institutes for Justice?


What do retired Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States do with their time and reputation?

One of them – Justice Paul Stevens, 94, just published another book Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution. This new work adds to his vigorous post-retirement writings and addresses.

Another – Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 84, has been busy making people miss her swing vote on the Court. She has cast doubt on the wisdom of her vote in Bush v. Goreand the unlimited corporate campaign cash allowed by the Citizens United decision issued after she left the court. Her addresses declaring existing legal services for the poor as grossly inadequate and arguing that our country needs more pro bono services by lawyers and supervised law students are among the most specific and eloquent ever delivered on that shame of the legal profession. She promotes increasing civic education in our schools and the “merit selection for judges” in place of forcing our judges to grub for campaign cash from specific interests.

It seems ripe for these vibrant human civic assets to be the inspiration for permanent institutes in their names – say the Stevens Institute for Justice and the O’Connor Institute for Justice.

Given their long tenure on the High Court, Justices Stevens and O’Connor each have had at least 100 law clerks to assist them. Many clerks are now wealthy, successful attorneys, while others are law professors and judges. They could organize themselves and launch these institutions with a solid funding base that could attract endowments, especially if the two Justices support this idea. In a short time, the depleting forest of American democracy – law and justice – could be replenished by two solid oak trees.

Am I just dreaming? Not at all. An effective model exists at New York University Law School called the Brennan Center for Justice. It was founded in 1995 by the family and former law clerks of Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan. With an annual budget of $10 million, the Brennan Center has a remarkable output for preserving and strengthening our democracy as if people matter first. It is described as “part think tank, part public interest law firm, and part communications hub” working for “equal justice for all.”

The Center uses instruments of education, power through the courts and legislature and networking with grassroots groups and public officials to give strength to citizens who desire to participate in government decision-making and elections.

The Center dives into the messiest of our plutocratic politics – the corruption of political money, the obstruction of voters and candidates, the rigging of elections through redistricting, the costs of mass incarceration and racially biased enforcement – and always focuses on solutions. Going where few go, the Brennan Center for Justice has taken to court unlawful actions by presidents and exposed the New York State legislature as being “the most dysfunctional [state legislature] in the United States” because it is tyrannized by “the two houses’ respective majority party leaders.” The Center is pressing for a set of ethics reforms, an independent redistricting commission and a public financing system for state elections that could be applicable to other states’ lawmakers.

Imagine going to a law school where students as interns are given an experiential role with the full-time staff in achieving both procedural and substantive justice – what Senator Daniel Webster called the great work of humans on Earth. (See http://www.brennancenter.org for more information).

I have not spoken to Justices Stevens and O’Connor about their willingness to give their names and backing to such Institutes. But Jason Adkins, Chair of Public Citizen, had a conversation with Justice Stevens on this subject in which the Justice responded favorably. Mr. Adkins gets things done, so look for some activity among Justice Stevens’ legions of admirers soon.

As for Justice O’Connor, she actively responds to invitations to address law reforms at educational conferences and serves as a trustee of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and of the group Justice at Stake. She started Our Courts America, a website that offers interactive civics lessons to students and teachers. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine the huge groundswell of supporters for such an institute furthering her goal of wider access to justice.

The motivation to develop these institutes can begin with the former clerks of Justice Stevens and O’Connor, who spent a year or two working in close proximity to these jurists and the Court. Who among them will step forth to start the process of extending the careers and spirit of these famous Justices to the benefit of posterity?

If we can do anything to help spark these initiatives, contact us at info@nader.org.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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