Empty Bench -- Justice Stewart Remembered


TOO OFTEN we think of the men who make our important national decisions as intellectually incapable of their jobs, morally corrupt, ideologically arrogant, or lacking the necessary mix of toughness and finesse. Too often we are right.

This past Saturday, retired Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart died at the age of 70. He was the other kind of public servant.

The New York Times noted the Justice's death in the lower right-hand part of its front page. The Times formated the Justice's biography by outlining his stands on many important Supreme Court decisions and mentioning a few well known quotes from his carreer. The Times story was both thorough and kind, but it did not say why Potter Stewart mattered.

Potter Stewart mattered for his integrity. His famous opposition to pornography was not based on the moral posing to which we have become inured. He simply did not believe that the First Amendment covered pornography as part of the press. The eloquence and gaudy brilliance so common in academia and so respected on the bench were not among his attributes.

The Justice relied on the common sense conspicuously absent in a field flush with refined ideas and elegant people. During the Vietnam War, Potter Stewart--who was certainly no liberal--attempted to get the Court to rule the draft unconstitutional without a declaration of war.


THE STAND HAD nothing to do with politics. It had to do with the Constitution and the belief that a man should be free to do what he wants if his government will not formally declare war. This stand coupled with his stands for the free press might have made him a hero to liberals and a nemesis of the right. The two sides might have reversed their views if they had considered his inflexible positions in favor of religious observance and school prayer.

Like The Times, the liberals and the conservatives miss the point. The point was the man himself. Regardless of how we felt about particular issues, it was comforting to know there was a man on the bench who could see clearly with his eyes and not rely on his ideology or his attempts at intellectual grace.

With the current talk of appointments to the Court, there will be arguments over questions like abortion, judicial restraint, potential justices' intellectual abilities, and ideology in general. Absent will be the quiet sense, character, and integrity for which Potter Stewart will not be forgotten.

Recommended Articles