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51 U. Louisville L. Rev. 419 (2013)
Glittering Generalities and Historical Myths
Justice John Paul Stevens (Ret.)*
Abstract

When I began the study of constitutional law at Northwestern in the fall of 1945, my professor was Nathaniel Nathanson, a former law clerk for Justice Brandeis. Because he asked us so many questions and rarely provided us with answers, we referred to the class as “Nat’s mystery hour.” I do, however, vividly remember his advice to “beware of glittering generalities.” That advice was consistent with his former boss’s approach to the adjudication of constitutional issues that he summarized in his separate opinion in Ashwander v. TVA.1 In that opinion, Justice Brandeis described several rules that the Court had devised to avoid the unnecessary decision of constitutional questions. As I explained in the first portion of my long dissent in the Citizens United case three years ago, the application of the Brandeis approach to constitutional adjudication would have avoided the dramatic changes in the law produced by that decision.2 I remain persuaded that the case was wrongly decided and that it has done more harm than good. Today, however, instead of repeating arguments from my lengthy dissent, I shall briefly comment on the glittering generality announced in the per curiam opinion in Buckley v. Valeo3 in 1976 that has become the centerpiece of the Court’s campaign-finance jurisprudence, and then suggest that in addition to being skeptical about glittering generalities, we must also beware of historical myths.

* Justice John Paul Stevens was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 20, 1920. He received an A.B. from the University of Chicago and a J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law. Justice Stevens served in the United States Navy from 1942 to 1945, and later served as a law clerk to Justice Wiley Rutledge. He was admitted to practice law in Illinois in 1949. Justice Stevens served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit from 1970 to 1975, when President Gerald R. Ford nominated him to serve as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Stevens took his seat on December 19, 1975, and retired from the Supreme Court on June 29, 2010. This Lecture was delivered on April 18, 2013, at a dinner hosted by the Brandeis Honor Society of the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. Following the lecture, Justice Stevens was presented with the prestigious Brandeis Medal. The Brandeis Medal is awarded to individuals whose lives reflect Justice Brandeis’s commitment to the ideals of public service.