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The Law And Potter Stewart: An Interview With Justice Potter Stewart
A quarter-century of judicial history, as seen—and made—by our only retired Supreme Court justice, a man whose allegiance to the Constitution often forced him to act against his personal preferences.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
Insofar as it was accurate I didn’t mind it so much. There were many inaccuracies in the book which most people might call minor inaccuracies but which I do not consider minor. But insofar as it was accurate, there’s no reason on earth that the American people should not know these things. It seems to me, with nine members of the Court representing different backgrounds, geographically and in much more important ways, that there are inevitably going to be differences of opinion and differences of approach to the novel and difficult issues that come before this Court. There is inevitably going to be give and take in reaching a Court opinion. And since that’s not only inevitable but right and intended, it should not come as a surprise to anybody.
Mr. Justice, what decided you on a law career? Is public life a Stewart family tradition?
Well, my father was a lawyer, and his father was a lawyer. I grew up listening at the family dinner table to stories of my father about his days in court. He later became a member of the Supreme Court of Ohio. His father had no public life apart from fighting in the Civil War. I just always assumed I was going to be a lawyer, although that assumption was shaken somewhat in my senior year in college. I was chairman of the Yale Daily News and I toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist. I had at the time an offer from Henry Luce of fifty dollars a week, then a very princely salary, so I went off to Cambridge, England, on a fellowship to think it over. I’d already been admitted to the Yale Law School, but I didn’t know whether I really wanted to go. In the end I decided to follow law rather than journalism.
When you were in law school, did it ever occur to you that you might wind up on the high bench?
Never, never, never, never. No. But I have often thought that if somebody had stood in front of our class and said, one of you birds is going to be President of the United States, and it’s up to each one of you to write down on a piece of paper who you think it’s going to be, everyone would have gotten at least one vote except our classmate Jerry Ford. At least each of us would have voted for himself, but Jerry Ford and the rest of us all knew that he was going to return to Grand Rapids and practice law. And that’s what nearly happened.