An era has ended with the death of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, on July 16th. The last and longest-serving World War II veteran on the Supreme Court, Stevens came to work each day with the enthusiasm of a new recruit and the wisdom of an old hand. During his 35 years on the court, from 1975 to 2010, he wrote his way through the most pressing legal questions of the times, often as part of the majority and sometimes in staunch dissent. His legacy includes cases with abiding importance for international affairs.
Stevens’ jurisprudence is hard to characterize. He took each case as it came, carefully considering how it related to the relevant legal texts, to legislative history and purpose, to judicial precedent, and to the foundational values of the United States’ constitutional democracy. He was sometimes called unpredictable or a maverick. Yet this alleged unpredictability was a feature rather than a bug—a reflection of Stevens’ integrity and independence. I clerked for him for a year, from 2005 to 2006, and I saw first-hand his commitment to doing justice to each case. As another of Stevens’ former clerks, the Columbia law professor Jamal Greene, wrote in The New York Times, “As the world around him became increasingly divided, he continued to believe he could persuade his colleagues through the sheer power of his good sense.”
During his long tenure, Stevens sat on many cases that touched on international affairs. Take Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (2007), a 5-4 case in which Stevens, in his majority opinion, held that greenhouse gases fall within the scope of the EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act. The decision was about U.S. environmental law, but it granted the administration of President Barack Obama the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, which then gave him the standing to commit to reducing U.S. emissions at the Paris climate negotiations. (Trump has since reneged on those commitments.)
But Stevens’ most distinctive foreign affairs jurisprudence sought
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