April 10, 2010

"Stevens spoke little about his family's ordeal, but it surely helped inspire a lifelong faith in the fairness of judges and the courts."

David Savage tells the fascinating story of Justice Stevens' boyhood:
He was born in 1920, the youngest of four boys in a wealthy family. When he was 7, his father opened the 28-story Stevens Hotel on Michigan Avenue (now the Hilton Chicago), overlooking the lake.

It was said to be the largest hotel in the world, and the young boy met the traveling celebrities of the era, including aviators Charles Lindbergh, who gave young John a dove, and Amelia Earhart, who advised him he should be in bed because it was a school night. A fan of the hometown Cubs, he watched at Wrigley Field as Babe Ruth pointed his bat at the outfield bleachers and hit the next pitch there during the 1932 World Series.

But by then, his family's prospects had darkened with the Great Depression. The stock market had crashed two years after the Stevens Hotel had opened, and the ensuing business collapse emptied most of its rooms. After the hotel was driven into bankruptcy, Stevens' father, uncle and grandfather were accused of having embezzled more than $1 million from the family-run life insurance company to prop up the failing hotel.

His grandfather suffered a stroke, and his uncle committed suicide. Left to stand trial alone, Stevens' father was convicted and faced a long prison term. A year later, however, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction and said that transferring money from one family business to another did not amount to embezzlement.


Skookum John said...

The devil's in the details, and this article is short on them. Did they have a minority partner or stockholders in the insurance company who were cheated? Did they pay taxes due on any money taken out? Did they stiff creditors of one company or another?

former law student said...

I'm waiting for mention of how Stevens was surely corrupted by being a Chicago pol. He was born in the reign of Capone-tainted mayor Big Bill Thompson -- the last Republican mayor of Chicago.

Pastafarian said...

I wonder if Stevens would have ruled in favor of the business in that particular case.

Or in any case.

An interesting and sad story, particularly when you bear in mind the net product of these formative events was a man who would rule against businessmen like his father time after time.

Kirby Olson said...

He should be impeached.

mtrobertsattorney said...

About three or four months ago, I watched a long interview with J. Stevens in his chambers. (I think it was on C-span) I thought that his answers to the interviewer's questions betrayed a kind of intellectual shallowness that is often associated with persons who spend a good deal of time congratulating themselves on how bright they are.

When reflecting on his law school days at Northwestern, he informed the interviewer that he had recieved the highest grade point average that had been recorded at the law school up until that time. He went on to note that, even today, his grade point average is still the highest ever recorded there. Apparently, he regularly checks with the law school to see if he is still ranked number one.

veni vidi vici said...

Heh. I saw him speak at NU while I was a student there in the late 90's. He was a tad boring, in that "enough about me, why don't you tell me something about me" kind of way that narcissists are.

Vain. You pretty much nailed my impression of him too, Mt. Roberts.

wv: "ligne" -- roset.