You already know Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is retiring after 35 years on the bench. But what you might not know is that Stevens, a Hyde Park native, started his career as a lawyer in Chicago.
Today, just for The Outfit, former long time Chicago Tribune columnist Bill Barnhart details one of Stevens' early cases, which, for a moment, put Chicago and Illinois (the state with perhaps the worst track record for ignoring prisoner appeals) in the forefront of the struggle for prisoners' rights and wrongful convictions.
Bill's biography, JOHN PAUL STEVENS, AN INDEPENDENT LIFE, hits bookshelves May 20. Called "a splendid biography" and "Terrific," Bill's book describes a rare specimen: a man of independent thought and action — free from political party agendas, moneyed interests and ideological straitjackets. (Would that his successor be as well). It's also a fascinating read.
by Bill Barnhart
The double-bill at the Windsor Theater on North Clark Street in Chicago was “Big City,” starring Spencer Tracy and Luise Rainer, and “Music for Madame,” with Joan Fontaine and Nino Martini. Under a brilliantly lighted movie palace canopy, the pre-Christmas ticket buyers from Chicago’s Gold Coast included a nervous gunman.
The young man faced the cashier in the ticket booth and demanded, “give me your money.” Jean Riley, a 23-year-old substitute cashier “noted for her beauty,” according to a newspaper account, laughed at what she thought was a joke. The man pushed his gun inside the booth, fired and grabbed $56. Riley died soon after in Henrotin Hospital.
A few months later, in early 1938, Arthur La Frana, a 24-year old married man who lived not far from the theater, was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison for the killing. He had confessed to police shortly after the crime but had withdrawn his confession, saying it resulted from police torture.
Seventeen years later, La Frana walked out of prison a free man. A corporate lawyer named John Paul Stevens, working pro bono with one of his former law professors at Northwestern University, established La Frana’s claim of police abuse, based largely on an unpublished newspaper photo showing La Frana’s battered face a few hours his arrest. La Frana, who had been active in his post-conviction appeals, sent Stevens a Christmas card just before his release.
The La Frana case made a lasting impression on Stevens, as he joined the federal appeals court in 1970 and the Supreme Court of the United States in 1975. In the late 1930s, Illinois had one of the worst reputations in the nation for ignoring legal appeals by convicted individuals. Only a stern rebuke of Illinois’s justice system by the Supreme Court of the United States, based in part on the La Frana case, brought change.
Richard Nixon, who won the presidency in November 1968 thanks in part to his law-and-order campaign theme, knew almost nothing about Stevens when the new president filed a vacancy on the federal appeals court in Chicago. Stevens had never met Nixon or his attorney general, John Mitchell, before the appointment. Still, rumors swirled that Nixon named Stevens under an agreement whereby Stevens would vote to uphold the convictions of anti-war protestors and their lawyers, the infamous Chicago Seven, who had been convicted a year earlier of crossing state lines to cause a riot.
No such deal existed. Moreover, Stevens asked his fellow Seventh Circuit judges not to be on the three-judge panel that considered the Chicago Seven appeal. Stevens went on to disappoint Nixon in other ways, expressing his deep regard for the basic rights of criminal defendants and prisoners.
For example, in a 1973, opinion Stevens ruled that prisoners should have “minimum requirements for due process” before they could be denied so-called good time credits reducing their sentences or be subjected to extraordinary discipline.
“Liberty protected by the due process clause [of the Constitution] may -- indeed must to some extent -- coexist with legal custody pursuant to conviction,” he wrote. “The deprivation of liberty following an adjudication of guilt is partial, not total. A residuum of constitutionally protected rights remains.”
Oddly, his views on prisoner rights caused Stevens problems when his nomination by President Gerald Ford for the Supreme Court was under review by activist liberals. By 1975, women’s rights stood higher on the agenda of liberal law groups than prisoner rights. Citing several Stevens opinions that annoyed the women’s movement of that period -- including his disagreement with a United Airlines attendant who was fired just for getting married -- scholars law suggested that Stevens interpreted statutes and the Constitution more narrowly in women’s rights cases than in prisoner rights cases.
Today, women’s rights advocates consider Stevens one of their best friends on the federal bench.
The "official" launch of the Stevens book is 6 p.m., Thursday, May 20, at the Original Billy Goat Tavern, 430 N. Michigan Avenue (lower level). Everyone is invited! Find out more about Bill and the book at his website.