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Sat April 26, 2014
Author Interviews

Justice Stevens: Six Little Ways To Change The Constitution

Originally published on Sat April 26, 2014 9:30 am

Just a few words can hold a world of meaning. John Paul Stevens, the retired Supreme Court justice, has written a short new book in which he proposes a few words here and there that would create some sweeping changes.

The book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, details the half-dozen ways Stevens thinks the Constitution could be improved, changes that he says are worth the trouble of the arduous amendment process.

To start, he proposes changing the First Amendment, the protection of free speech, so that it allows "reasonable limits" on the amount of money candidates for public office or their supporters can spend on election campaigns.

Stevens would add words to the Second Amendment to read, "the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the militia shall not be infringed." He would also end the death penalty, adding it to the prohibitions on "excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment."

"I think in time that what I have to say about each of these six issues will be accepted as being consistent with what the framers really intended in the first place," Stevens tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I think in time, reason will prevail."


Interview Highlights

On whether the quality of free speech is different when it's directed in a political campaign than in the ordinary course of events

Not necessarily the quality, but the permissibility of regulations of speech is quite different because of a very strong state interest in trying to establish equality of opportunity for competing candidates to get elected.

On the Supreme Court's ruling this week saying that voters could elect to end affirmative action programs

It's a very interesting case, and I haven't completely finished reading it, but a quite different issue than I thought it was. The case is not about whether affirmative action itself is a good idea or a bad idea, should be permissible. It's rather about the question of the way in which the state changed its law, whether they followed a procedure that violated a series of cases that say legislatures may not enact laws that are designed to make it more difficult for minorities to achieve their own goals. And the question here is really whether this was such a law or not. There really isn't much argument about whether affirmative action is a good thing or a bad thing.

On whether marijuana use should be legal under federal law

Yes. Public opinion has changed and recognized that the distinction between marijuana and alcoholic beverages is really not much of a distinction. There's a general consensus that the prohibition against selling and dispensing alcoholic beverages was not worth the cost, and I think really, in time, that'll be the general consensus with respect to this particular drug. It's really a very similar problem to the whole problem on Prohibition. Of course, I lived through that, part of that period.

On whether term limits should be imposed on Supreme Court justices

No, I really don't think so. I think that the Supreme Court justices over the years have demonstrated an ability to recognize when it's time for them to retire.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Just a few words can hold a world of meeting. John Paul Stevens, the retired Supreme Court justice, has written a new short book in which he proposes a few words here and there that would create some sweeping changes. His book is "Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution." Justice Stevens joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN PAUL STEVENS: It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: Let me get this out of the way first. It is hard to amend the Constitution of the United States, by design.

STEVENS: It is, but there are those who think it should be made easier.

SIMON: Well, seeing as how there hasn't been an amendment that's passed successfully since I believe 1992, and that was to accommodate a congressional pay raise...

STEVENS: Right.

SIMON: ...Is this book just kind of for the exercise?

STEVENS: No, I don't think so. I think in time, what I have to say about each of these six issues will be accepted as being consistent with what the framers really intended in the first place, particularly those who drafted the 14th Amendment. And I think in time, the reason will prevail, and this may surprise people who think it's too ambitious a project to discuss in a book.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you about some of your proposed changes. You propose an amendment to say that the First Amendment - free-speech - shouldn't prohibit what you call reasonable limits on the amount of money candidates for public office or their supporters spend in election campaigns. Now, to follow up, isn't what's reasonable different for people like Sheldon Adelson or George Soros than it is for most of the rest of us?

STEVENS: It is. Of course, they would not be the people who decide what is reasonable. Those decisions would be made in the first instance by Congress, and then ultimately presumably subject to review by the Supreme Court. It's quite important to recognize the distinction between expenditures for - to support or oppose a candidate in an election and expenditure on speech on general issues of public interest. The amendment would make that distinction perfectly clear, even though it was obscured in some of the court's course earlier cases.

SIMON: So you think that the quality of free speech is different when it's directed in a political campaign than in the ordinary course of events?

STEVENS: Not necessarily the quality, but the permissibility of regulations of speech is quite different because there's a very strong state interest in trying to establish equality of opportunity for competing candidates to get elected.

SIMON: Let me ask you about another proposed amendment. You suggest including five short words in a new amendment that would say quote, "The right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the militia shall not be infringed."

STEVENS: Yeah.

SIMON: You're adding those words, when serving in the militia. What would you say to those people who say, I live way out in the country, or I live in a rough neighborhood in Chicago. I can't count on the militia - the police, if you please - to arrive in time to save my family from harm. So as a U.S. citizen, I need the right to own a gun - few questions asked.

STEVENS: That's an argument in favor of preserving the rule that it is now, and there's certainly merit to it. But that argument can still be made if my amendment was adopted. The only thing the amendment would change, it would eliminate the judges as being the last decision-makers on a question of gun policy because there's no reason in the world why a state could not provide special exceptions for people who live out the country a long way from protection by law enforcement if they wanted to.

SIMON: The Supreme Court, your old colleagues, ruled this week that states could end affirmative action programs if they so voted. You changed your mind once or twice while sitting on the court about affirmative action. What do you think of this week's ruling?

STEVENS: It's a very interesting case, and I haven't completely finished reading it, but the - quite different issue than I thought it was. And the case is not about whether affirmative action itself is a good idea or a bad idea, should be permissible. It's rather about the question of the way in which the state changed its law, whether they followed a procedure that violated a series of cases that say legislatures may not enact laws that are designed to make it more difficult for minorities to achieve their own goals.

And the question here is really whether this was such a law or not. There really isn't much argument about whether affirmative action is a good thing or a bad thing.

SIMON: An increasing number of states are legalizing marijuana. Should federal law?

STEVENS: Yes.

SIMON: We may have just made some news.

STEVENS: Yes. Public opinion has changed and recognized that the distinction between marijuana and alcoholic beverages is really not much of a distinction. There's a general consensus that the prohibition against selling and dispensing alcoholic beverages was not worth the cost. And I think really, in time, that will be the general consensus with respect to this particular drug. It's really a very similar problem to the whole problem on prohibition. Of course, I lived through that - part of that period.

SIMON: And you raise an interesting question by noting that you lived through prohibition. You retired four years ago...

STEVENS: Yes, I did.

SIMON: ...From the court at the age of 90. With respect to your colleagues who are still there, should there be term limits for Supreme Court justices?

STEVENS: No, I really don't think so. I think that Supreme Court justices over the years have demonstrated inability to recognize when it's time for them to retire.

SIMON: What about the argument about term limits that has nothing to do with whether or not a justice is capable, but just goes, in a democracy, there should be turnover in an institution. And somebody - a number of justices serving 25 and 30 years and more on the court don't provide for that turnover.

STEVENS: Intelligent people can take both sides of it. I tend to be a person that, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But I do think life tenure makes federal decisions more impartial than they might otherwise be.

SIMON: I cannot let you out of the studio without asking - this week the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field in Chicago. You were reportedly in Wrigley Field on that famous day in 1932 when Babe Ruth allegedly pointed to center field.

STEVENS: He did point to center field, and I...

SIMON: So you were there in the crowd?

STEVENS: I was definitely there in the crowd. And I'm convinced that when histories and biographies are written about me, that will be the most important event in my life that will be remembered.

SIMON: (Laughter) I can't get over the fact that a youngster sitting there that day grows up to serve - become the second-longest-serving justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

STEVENS: Well, I can either.

SIMON: John Paul Stevens, now retired from the U.S. Supreme Court. His new book, "Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution." Mr. Justice, thanks so much for being with us.

STEVENS: Well, thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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