Remembering Justice Stevens

by Anne M. Voigts

The difficulty in writing about the life of someone like Justice John Paul Stevens is in knowing where to start.  He led an exceptionally full life, and those of us who were lucky to share some part of that life for one Supreme Court term were in awe of his energy, and kindness, and humility (if not his notoriously spartan lunches).

Others will write about his opinions in cases like Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., or Bush v. Gore, but one far less prominent case embodies his fundamental decency and compassion.

In Martin v. D.C. Court of Appeals (1992), a pro se petitioner named James L. Martin, whom the Court caustically (but accurately) described as “a notorious abuser of this Court’s certiorari process,” asked for leave to proceed in forma pauperis – that is, without paying a filing fee.  The Court not only denied the request, but directed the Clerk not to accept any further cert. petitions from Martin in noncriminal matters unless he ponied up for the docketing fees.
The Court justified its decision by noting that Martin had “repeatedly made totally frivolous demands on the Court’s limited resources.”  In so doing, Martin substantially expanded on prior cases like In re Sindram (1991), and In re McDonald (1989), which had imposed prospective bars to indigent petitioners for extraordinary writs.  Neither of those cases, however, had precluded those individuals from seeking certiorari.  The per curiam opinion acknowledged this distinction, but concluded that “Martin’s pattern of abuse has had a similarly deleterious effect on this Court's ‘fair allocation of judicial resources.’”

Justice Stevens dissented.  Joined by Justice Blackmun, he wrote: In my opinion the judicial resources of the Court could be used more effectively by simply denying Martin's petitions than by drafting, entering, and policing the order the Court enters today.”  He didn’t dispute that Martin’s petitions were both many and mostly meritless, but he concluded nonetheless that “[t]he theoretical administrative benefit the Court may derive from an order of this kind is far outweighed by the shadow it casts on the great tradition of open access that characterized the Court’s history . . . .”

After Martin, the Supreme Court would more and more frequently impose categorical, prospective bars on frequent flyers wishing to proceed in forma pauperis.  See Jared S. Sunshine, The Putative Problem of Pestersome Paupers: A Critique of the Supreme Court's Increasing Exercise of Its Power to Bar the Courthouse Doors Against in Forma Pauperis Petitioners, 46 Hastings Const. L.Q. 57, 59 (2018).  And although Justice Stevens initially said that he would not note his dissent from similar orders “absent exceptional orders,” in fact he continued to do so, with a cite to his dissent in Martin.
To me, that practice summed up the Justice.  He believed that every case mattered, even the ones that didn’t make the headlines.  He cared deeply about open access to the courts, even for those prone to abuse that access.  And because he believed that he was right, that was reason enough to stand his ground, even though the battle had long since been lost.