WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court's oldest member is taking issue with those who believe the court is secretive and that he and his colleagues spend their summers frolicking on fabulous vacations.
Justice John Paul Stevens (search) says his time off was sedate: He read two biographies and the 567-page report of the Sept. 11 commission (search). And he did not frequent exotic locations -- unless you count Chicago.
The 84-year-old justice, speaking to Chicago lawyers, complained about a newspaper column which called the court's members the "nine most powerful, secretive public officials in the land."
The column in The New York Times by Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick said, "Justices have just spent another summer like vacationing Greek gods, frolicking" and earning extra money teaching at exotic locations, with little attention paid to them.
The justice with the tan might be Antonin Scalia (search), who taught summer school in the Greek Isles. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (search) was in France, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) in England.
After a three-month break, most of the supremes are back at the court, getting ready for closed-door meetings that begin next week. They open a new term on Oct. 4.
Many of the justices accept money for summer teaching jobs.
Stevens, a World War II veteran, has had few public appearances in recent years. In the past, he was a frequent participant in the jurist-in residence program at the University of Hawaii Law School.
Stevens used the speech at the Chicago Bar Association (search) to defend the mysteriousness of the court, where cameras and tape recorders are barred.
"I have always taken pride in the fact that we are the one branch of the government that conscientiously tries to explain the reasons for all of its important decisions. Although we may not give press conferences, we certainly write our own form of substantive and comprehensive press releases," he said.
Ironically, reporters found out about Stevens' speech in Chicago last week only after-the-fact. A copy of his remarks were distributed two days later. Like many members of the court, Stevens declines to release a schedule of speeches and appearances.
Stevens, put on the Supreme Court by Republican President Ford in 1975, is generally one of the more outspoken justices, at least on paper. He writes vigorous dissents and is considered one of the court's most liberal members.
He said in the speech that if people want to talk about secrecy, they should look at the White House.
"The executive branch in particular often makes important decisions without providing official explanations or recording the presence of internal dissent," he said.
He did not explain the remark, but the Supreme Court recently dealt with a dispute over presidential privacy in the Bush administration's effort to withhold details about private meetings of the vice president's energy task force.
Stevens also said that the Sept. 11 commission report of the 2001 terrorist attacks was too agreeable.
"I believe a more complete airing of differing opinions would have better served Congress' interest in correcting past mistakes than limiting the commission's recommendations to those that the commissioners could endorse unanimously."
As far as his summer, Stevens acknowledged he was a book worm. His picks were the 592-page "Salt of the Earth, Conscience of the Court" about the late Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge by John Ferren (Stevens was a law clerk for Rutledge in 1947) and author Ron Chernow's 600-page biography of founding father Alexander Hamilton.
He said Rutledge's work significantly influenced the Supreme Court in its recent ruling that opened federal courts to foreigners being held without legal rights at a U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay.
Stevens ended his speech with a thanks to the Chicago lawyers for hosting him "in this exotic locale."