Former Supreme Court Justice Stevens showcases legal knowledge, quick wit in Naples appearance

Casey Wolff, left, a local immigration attorney, laughs with retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens on Thursday at the Waldorf Astoria Naples. Stevens was given the Benjamin Nathan Cardozo Memorial Award. The Tau Epsilon Rho Law Society began presenting the award in 1941 to honor an individual's lifetime achievements. Thursday's event began with a wine and cheese reception at 6 p.m., followed by a four-course dinner.

Photo by COREY PERRINE, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Casey Wolff, left, a local immigration attorney, laughs with retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens on Thursday at the Waldorf Astoria Naples. Stevens was given the Benjamin Nathan Cardozo Memorial Award. The Tau Epsilon Rho Law Society began presenting the award in 1941 to honor an individual's lifetime achievements. Thursday's event began with a wine and cheese reception at 6 p.m., followed by a four-course dinner.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens listens while being interviewed Thursday on stage at the Waldorf Astoria Naples. Stevens was given the Benjamin Nathan Cardozo Memorial Award. The Tau Epsilon Rho Law Society began presenting the award in 1941 to honor an individual's lifetime achievements. Thursday's event began with a wine and cheese reception at 6 p.m., followed by a four-course dinner.

Photo by COREY PERRINE, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens listens while being interviewed Thursday on stage at the Waldorf Astoria Naples. Stevens was given the Benjamin Nathan Cardozo Memorial Award. The Tau Epsilon Rho Law Society began presenting the award in 1941 to honor an individual's lifetime achievements. Thursday's event began with a wine and cheese reception at 6 p.m., followed by a four-course dinner.

— John Paul Stevens still worries about the effects of Bush v. Gore. He remains unnerved by capital punishment. And to this day, he still looks back on decades-old cases, some wistfully, some with regret.

At age 92, the retired U.S. Supreme Court justice remains sharp on all topics legal, freely opining Thursday evening in Naples on the decisions of years past and the challenges facing the nation's highest court.

Stevens spoke to about 100 people at the Waldorf Astoria hotel as he received the Benjamin Nathan Cardozo Memorial Award from the Tau Epsilon Rho Law Society. The award is named after a former U.S. Supreme Court justice who served in the 1930s.

"It's truly an honor to be named alongside Justice Cardozo," said Stevens, the third longest-serving justice in U.S. Supreme Court history.

Under questioning from federal appeals Judge Marjorie Rendell, Stevens recounted some of the highs and lows from his time on the bench, which lasted 34½ years.

Speaking about the historic Bush v. Gore decision, which struck down the Florida Supreme Court's plan for recounting votes in the 2000 presidential election, Stevens voiced his concern about the lingering effects of the 5-4 ruling. Stevens, considered one of the leading liberal voices on the court, wrote a dissenting opinion, and still worries about the politicization of the case.

"I do think the majority opinion did make many members of the public more cynical about the judicial process," said Stevens, who lives in the South Florida area. "I do think some of that cynicism is very significant."

Touching on gun laws in the wake of this month's shooting in Newtown, Conn., Stevens lamented two firearm-related rulings with which he disagreed — decisions striking down both Chicago's ban on handguns in the home and a requirement that local law enforcement agencies get involved in background checks for gun purchasers.

"That case could be responsible for some very serious tragedies," Stevens said of the latter ruling.

Sporting his signature bow tie, Stevens hardly showed his age, quickly responding to questions from Rendell and occasionally showing off a quick wit.

His 15-minute speech before accepting the award practically required a juris doctorate to follow, winding through Louisiana's 1879 constitution, the 11th Amendment and sovereign immunity for universities.

He spoke eloquently about current Chief Justice John Roberts ("really an ideal choice" for the job), railed against political gerrymandering ("totally unjustified" in many cases) and lamented the death penalty.

Stevens becomes the seventh Supreme Court justice to receive the Cardozo award. Other recipients have included President Harry S. Truman and author Pearl S. Buck.

Stevens was chosen from a committee by the fraternity, which is having its 92nd annual convention in Naples.

"To listen to someone who has been in the highest of high places, at the head of the judicial branch, to listen to what he thought has gone right and wrong is just a fascinating thing," said David Marion, a Philadelphia-based lawyer who once argued a First Amendment case before Stevens.

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