Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens Opens Up

60 Minutes: Retired Justice Reflects on Decisions That Helped Shape American History

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The age of 12 was eventful: his father lost his wealth in the Depression and then the cops came for him.

"Your father was arrested for allegedly embezzling money from the family insurance business and using it to support the hotel. What was it like for you as a boy 12 years old when your father was convicted?" Pelley asked.

"I never really thought he'd spend any time in jail because I knew the kind of man he was," Stevens replied.

That's when Stevens, at an early age, saw how a judge could change the world. On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that there was no credible evidence against his father.

"Did seeing your father wrongly convicted and then exonerated influence you as a judge at all?" Pelley asked.

"It may well have because it was an example of the system not working properly. And so I think every judge has to keep in mind the possibility that the system has not worked correctly in a particular case," Stevens explained.

He drew on that lesson 70 years later in the war on terror, in a series of cases that are seen as among the most important of his career.

The Bush administration said prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had no right to lawyers or courts because they were held outside the U.S. But Stevens led a court majority that ruled that the U.S. naval base there was essentially American territory, so the prisoners did have legal rights.

"There is one inscription, and one inscription only, above the door to this building," Pelley remarked, referring to the words "Equal Justice Under Law" inscribed on the façade of the Supreme Court. "And that applies to foreign nationals who may wish to do this country harm?"

"If they're to be prosecuted for crimes, they're entitled to a fair trial or fair procedures," Stevens argued.

In another terror case, the stakes were much higher because the suspect, Jose Padilla, was an American citizen. He was arrested in the U.S. on suspicion of terrorist ties and put into a military brig for nearly four years without charges. He was held incommunicado, on nothing but the order of the president.

"I thought that very possibility is a potential threat to every citizen in the United States, if you can be subjected to that kind of detention without access to courts or lawyers or the rest it is a matter to be very concerned about," Stevens said.

The court majority dismissed Padilla's appeal on a technicality, but Stevens and three other justices had wanted to rule on Padilla's detention. Stevens aimed his dissent at the Bush administration, writing "If this nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag it must not wield the tools of tyrants…."

"John Stevens plays by the rules, but he knows how to throw a punch," Justice David Souter told Pelley.