Giant Hotel, Coin Flip and Other Stories of Stevens' Chicago | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Giant Hotel, Coin Flip and Other Stories of Stevens' Chicago

Speculation continues today about who President Obama will nominate for the U.S. Supreme Court. Several Chicago area natives are said to be in the mix to replace Justice John Paul Stevens, himself a longtime Chicagoan. The retiring justice grew up in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood, and that's where we begin this look at Stevens' Chicago roots.

HUDZIK: Stevens was born into a prosperous family - in the life insurance and hotel business - on April 20, 1920 at 4:12 in the morning right here at this large Hyde Park home on the 5800 block of South Blackstone. But the Southsider was - and still is - a Cubs fan. And he's told reporters he attended Game 3 of the 1932 Cubs-Yankees World Series, when Babe Ruth made his famous "called shot" home run. Later, though, Stevens' life turned upside down. The depression had crumbled the hotel business (his family had built the giant 3,000-room Stevens Hotel, which is now the Hilton on Michigan Avenue) and his father's attempts to save it using insurance company money led to criminal charges and a conviction, though it was later overturned by the state Supreme Court.

BAUER: I think he's probably still bitter about some aspect of it, only because it affected his family.

Judge William Bauer served with Stevens - years later - on the federal appeals court in Chicago. Bauer says, for some, a childhood experience with the court system like that could "sour you on the world at large, and law in particular." But not for Stevens.

BAUER: It certainly didn't affect his rise to success. Didn't slow him down a bit.

Stevens graduated from the University of Chicago in 1941. That's where he was recruited to serve as a code breaker for the Navy during World War II, earning a Bronze Star. Returning to Chicago, Stevens attended Northwestern University Law School. Classmate Art Seder remembers him as a great student, and a terrific bridge player...

SEDER: we ate our sandwiches, in the basement of the law school, with two other fellow law students.

Seder and Stevens edited the law review together.

SEDER: When we graduated in 1947, the Northwestern faculty had an understanding with Justice Wiley Rutledge of the Supreme Court that he would take one Northwestern student as a law clerk.

But the faculty, Seder says, didn't want to pick between him and Stevens.

SEDER: So they asked us to flip a coin to decide who would go down to Washington as law clerk. We did that and Justice Stevens won the flip.

Stevens and Seder are still friends, occasionally having dinner together in Florida, Seder says, where they both have homes.

After his clerkship at the Supreme Court, Stevens came back to Chicago. He became an expert in anti-trust law, and earned a reputation as a scholarly, honest lawyer. And that brings us to 1969, when two justices on the Illinois Supreme Court were suspected of having a conflict of interest in a case they'd ruled on. The commission investigating the charge needed a top attorney to handle the case.

MANASTER: Stevens got a call one warm June evening at home while he was playing with his kids, out in the driveway. He thought about it for a minute, and said, 'Yeah. I'll do it. That's the kind of thing I ought to do.'

Ken Manaster worked on the investigation with Stevens as a young lawyer.
MANASTER: Basically we worked on this around the clock, for six weeks.
Their work led to the two justices resigning, and a good deal of press attention for Stevens. U.S. Senator Charles Percy soon convinced President Nixon to put Stevens on the federal appeals court in Chicago.

BAUER: What I do remember, is he's a soft spoken man on the bench...

That's Judge Bauer again. At 83 years old, Bauer is the only member of the current appeals court who served there with Stevens.

BAUER: ...and the only time he asked a question was when he really wanted to know the answer. He didn't ask questions to prove anything or to prove how smart he was or to embarrass anybody.

When Stevens was confirmed as U.S. Supreme Court Justice in 1975, Bauer says he was happy for him, but sad to see him go. They still keep in touch. Bauer's wife died about four years ago, and Stevens called just hours later to offer his condolences.

BAUER: We do not talk about law. We've been known to talk about things other than the law. We don't talk about golf, except I ask him how his golf game is, and actually I frankly don't give a damn, but I ask him because he likes it. [laughs]

Stevens will have plenty more time for golf, and bridge and dinner with old friends when his retirement begins this summer, more than 90 years after he was born in that big house in Hyde Park.

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