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January 2010

 Justice John Paul Stevens, who will turn 90 in April, joined the court in 1975 and is the longest-serving current justice by more than a decade. He has given signals that he intends to retire at the end of this term, and his dissent on Thursday was shot through with disappointment, frustration and uncharacteristic sarcasm.

But there was no mistaking his basic message.


“The rule announced today — that Congress must treat corporations exactly like human speakers in the political realm — represents a radical change in the law,” he said from the bench. “The court’s decision is at war with the views of generations of Americans.”

That was the plainspoken style of the last years of Justice Stevens’s tenure.

Justice Stevens is the leader of the court’s liberal wing, and its three other members — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor — all joined his 90-page dissent. They must have been tempted to write separately, as the case was bristling with issues of particular interest to all of them. Instead, they allowed the spotlight to shine solely on Justice Stevens.There was no such solidarity among the conservatives. Though Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. all joined Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion on its main point, three of them added separate concurrences. In his dissent, Justice Stevens said no principle required overruling two major campaign finance precedents.


“The only relevant thing that has changed since” those decisions, he wrote, “is the composition of this court.”

In Justice Stevens’s early years on the court, his views often seemed idiosyncratic, and he would often write separate opinions joined by no other justice. Over the years, though, he has emerged as a master tactician, and he came to use his seniority to great advantage.

A theme ran through these recent opinions: that the Supreme Court had lost touch with fundamental notions of fair play.

“A decision cannot be fairly characterized as ‘strategic’ unless it is a conscious choice between two legitimate and rational alternatives,” Justice Stevens wrote. “It must be borne of deliberation and not happenstance, inattention or neglect.”


Thursday’s decision in the Citizens United case was more full-throated.

“The majority blazes through our precedents,” he wrote, “overruling or disavowing a body of case law” that included seven deciions."

“While American democracy is imperfect,” he wrote, “few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”