Green on Hamdan (Part II): Who’s the Greatest Clerk Ever?
He has provided two different posts for us. Here is the second:
John Paul Stevens: Best Law Clerk Ever
One “lighter” note about Hamdan.
Recently, a few folks (i.e., John Ferren, Joseph Thai, Diane Amman (74 Fordham L.R.), and li’l old me ) have struggled to draw attention to Wiley Rutledge, for whom Stevens clerked on the Court many years ago. Rutledge confronted lots of “executive detention” issues in World War II, and that experience profoundly affected the pre-Justice Stevens.
Before yesterday, the most remarkable episode in this intergenerational overlap was the fact that Stevens wrote the Rasul majority – extending habeas jurisdiction to GTMO detainees – which vindicated a Rutledge dissent that law-clerk Stevens helped draft almost sixty years earlier. Pretty crazy right?
Well, we now know that the beat goes on. The most “famous” opinion Rutledge ever wrote (no smirking please) was a dissent attacking General Yamashita’s conviction before a procedurally flawed military commission. Yesterday, Stevens and the Court overturned that precedent almost casually. One minute, Stevens explained that Yamashita “has been seriously undermined by post-World War II developments” (not including any S.Ct. decisions, mind you). The next, the “notorious” Yamashita decision “has been stripped of its precedential value.” Just like that.
I think future generations won’t fully appreciate what Stevens accomplished in Hamdan, at least till the conference notes come out. The case was extraordinarily hard, and Stevens assigned himself the opinion, despite knowing that: (i) very talented dissenters would level a slew of pretty good arguments against him, and (ii) Kennedy’s vote has not proven, shall we say, 100% reliable in such cases. Stevens had to be strong enough to fend off the dissents, but not too strong to hold a possibly wobbly fifth vote.
In my own melodramatic way, i think Stevens’s success in Hamdan represents his most important work in thirty years of distinguished service at the Court. The passage of time, combined with the normative power of the actual, may lead us to someday forget how unexpected, even astonishing, Stevens’s accomplishment is. But one may be sure that Rutledge and his generation would not. Never before has a Supreme Court clerk succeeded in converting his former boss’s dissents to majority opinions – much less with such dramatic effect. So let’s celebrate for JPS – the greatest law clerk in U.S. history. Then we’ll just have to wait to see if Chief Justice Roberts gets his own shot at the title . . .