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Ford’s most important legacy: Stevens

Measured by its lasting impact, President Ford’s most significant act was appointing John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court.'s Tom Curry explains how Donald Rumsfeld helped bring about the appointment. [!]
File photo of former US President Ford sitting in the Oval Office
President Gerald Ford at work in the Oval Office at the White House on March 25, 1975. Reuters file
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If you were born in 1974, the year that Gerald Ford took office as America’s first unelected president, his time in the White House isn't even a memory to you.

Even for people older than age 32, the headline events of the Ford era may now be only vague recollections.

Remember the Mayaguez? That was the American merchant ship captured by the Cambodian navy, prompting Ford to order an attack to retake it.

How about Sara Jane Moore? She was the woman who fired a shot from her .38-caliber revolver at the president in 1975 as he was leaving the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, missing him by five feet.

And do you remember Ford being the first president ever to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, where he got rough treatment from Democrats over his pardon of his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon?

None of that matters much now, except to historians.

A lasting effect
But one thing Ford did is making a profound difference in the lives of Americans living today. Measured by its lasting impact, Ford’s most significant act as president was appointing John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court.

Next week will mark the 31st anniversary of Stevens’ taking his oath as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Stevens has turned out to be one of the stalwart members of the court's liberal wing.

Thirty years after Ford left office, Americans are living under legal rules created by the Supreme Court, in many cases by 5-to-4 decisions with Stevens in the majority.

Among them:

  • Stevens wrote the majority opinion in Kelo v. New London, the 2005 decision that held that local and state governments could condemn and acquire private property even when it was not to be used for a public purpose.
  • He helped form the five-justice majority in another 2005 case, Roper v. Simmons, which held that convicted murderers who’d been under age 18 when they committed their crime could not get the death penalty.
  • He joined a 2000 decision called Stenberg v. Carhart in which the court struck down a Nebraska law banning so-called “partial-birth” abortions.

As fate would have it, Jimmy Carter, who defeated Ford in the 1976 election, served a full four-year term as president and never got to appoint any justices.

Filling out Nixon's second term, Ford served for just two-and-a-half years and had the chance to name Stevens to the vacancy created by the resignation of Justice William O. Douglas in 1975.

Stevens was serving as a federal appeals court judge in Chicago at the time.

Delegating to Levi
The most far-reaching decision Ford made as president was to delegate the task of finding a new justice to his attorney general, Edward Levi.

According to historian David O'Brien, Ford's "virtually complete reliance on Levi, more than any other factor, accounts for his final choice in filling the vacancy on the Court."

It was Ford’s White House chief of staff, a former congressman from the Chicago suburbs named Donald Rumsfeld, who had suggested in December 1974 that Ford choose Levi, the president of the University of Chicago and former dean of its law school, as his attorney general. 

Under Nixon, the Justice Department had become "heavily politicized," Ford later wrote. He said he wanted "someone nonpolitical" to serve as attorney general and Rumsfeld thought of Levi.

Luckily for Stevens, he and Levi were close friends. And Levi was seeking a competent and well-regarded mainstream judicial craftsman who could win approval from a Senate in which the Democrats had a 60-seat majority.

Other justices, such as Douglas and Felix Frankfurter, have gotten on the high court by being a friend of the president. Stevens was the friend of the man whom the president had given almost carte blanche authority to find a new justice.

“Even before he asked me to join the Chicago Law faculty on a part-time basis in the early 1950s, I had regarded Edward Levi as both friend and hero,” Stevens said after Levi died six years ago.

The Chicago connection — Rumsfeld to Levi to Stevens — made all the difference, a difference that helped create the legal framework Americans live under today.