Stevens and Hatch: Two events mark the passing of civility

It’s not just the bow ties they had in common; it’s the air of civility. Yesterday U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced that he will retire from the nation’s highest bench. Within the same 24-hour period, former Massachusetts House Minority Leader Frank Hatch passed away. Both left an imprint on the institutions with which they were associated, and both had a style that is sorely missed today in the realm of public affairs.

I covered Frank Hatch at the State House in the 1970’s. He was all about reasoned discourse and finding a consensus on issues. As then-House Speaker David Bartley said of his Republican counterpart in Gloria Negri’s column in today’s Boston Globe, Hatch was all about “integrity, decency and dignity.” He represented a noble tradition of Republicanism and thought in the Commonwealth, conservative on fiscal matters, liberal on social issues, and marked by personal grace. He was enlightened and visionary on environmental issues and bespoke a political environment where people could still disagree without being disagreeable.

Justice Stevens was a Republican in the same tradition. Stevens, who will retire after this term, is always hailed as the most liberal of justices, but, as Adam Liptak points out in today’s New York Times, it was the court that moved to the right rather than Stevens moving to the left. Any number of cases will be cited in coming days to illustrate his distinguished career and the superb quality of his writing. The quote that sticks with me was his statement after the outcome of the Bush-Gore presidential campaign in 2000, when he said, “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

I see Justice Stevens as “an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” His brilliance and fair-mindedness will be missed. Following President Gerald Ford’s nomination of Stevens, confirmation took less than three weeks. Would anyone bet on that happening when President Obama makes known his choice to succeed Stevens?

The Commonwealth and the nation are poorer for the death of Hatch and the stepping down of Stevens, just as we are poorer for the dominance of highly ideological leaders on both the right and left wings. Sadly today a pragmatic center is too often ignored or viewed as betrayal, and politics succeeds largely by throwing red meat to the parties’ bases.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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