Justice Stevens Calls On History He Lived

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Justice John Paul Stevens, the third-oldest person ever to sit on the Supreme Court, turned 87 on April 20. If he's still on the court 142 days from now, he'll overtake Roger B. Taney, who died as chief justice in 1864 at the age of 87 years 209 days.

Stevens still has a long way to go if he wants to catch Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was 90 when he retired from the court in 1932. But he has already started invoking his considerable life experience to buttress his opinions.

On Monday, Stevens dissented in the case of the Alaska teenager who was suspended for displaying a "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner at a school event. While a majority of the court said the Constitution does not protect pro-drug student speech, Stevens took the historic view.

Harking back to Prohibition, which began three months before Stevens's birth and ended a month before he turned 13 in 1933, Stevens compared the current marijuana ban to the abandoned alcohol ban and urged a respectful hearing for those who suggest "however inarticulately" that the ban is "futile" and that marijuana should be legalized, taxed and regulated instead of prohibited:

"[T]he current dominant opinion supporting the war on drugs in general, and our anti-marijuana laws in particular, is reminiscent of the opinion that supported the nationwide ban on alcohol consumption when I was a student. While alcoholic beverages are now regarded as ordinary articles of commerce, their use was then condemned with the same moral fervor that now supports the war on drugs."

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