Justice Stevens: Make 6 changes to Constitution

WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of the Connecticut school shootings that left 20 first-graders and six educators dead, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens began thinking about ways to prevent a repeat.

The result is Stevens’ new book — his second since retiring from the court at age 90 — in which he calls for no fewer than six changes to the Constitution, of which two are directly related to guns. Others would abolish the death penalty, make it easier to limit spending on elections and rein in partisan drawing of electoral districts.

His proposed amendments generally would overrule major Supreme Court decisions with which he disagrees, including ones on guns and campaign finance in which he dissented.

The book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” is being published Tuesday by Little, Brown and Co., two days after Stevens’ 94th birthday.

Stevens said in an interview with The Associated Press that the Newtown, Conn., shootings in December 2012 made him think about doing “whatever we could to prevent such a thing from happening again.”

He said he was bothered by press reports about gaps in the federal government database for checking the background of prospective gun buyers. Those gaps exist because the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that states could not be forced to participate in the background check system. Stevens dissented from the court’s 5-4 ruling in Printz v. United States.

One amendment would allow Congress to force state participation in gun checks, while a second would change the Second Amendment to permit gun control. Stevens was on the losing end of another 5-4 decision in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the court declared for the first time that Americans have a right to own a gun for self-defense.

He acknowledged that his proposed change would allow Congress to do something unthinkable in today’s environment: ban gun ownership altogether.

“I’d think the chance of changing the Second Amendment is pretty remote,” Stevens said. “The purpose is to cause further reflection over a period of time because it seems to me with ample time and ample reflection, people in the United States would come to the same conclusion that people in other countries have.”

Justices often say that their dissenting opinions are written with the hope that today’s dissent might attract a majority on some future court.

But Stevens has gone a step beyond by proposing the constitutional changes. Asked whether the book could in part be seen as “sour grapes,” he readily agreed.

“To a certain extent, it’s no doubt true, because I do think the court made some serious mistakes, as I did point out in my dissents,” he said. “But I’ve been criticized for making speeches since I retired. Writing the book is not much different from continuing to speak about things I find interesting.”

A recent example is the court’s decision, again by a 5-4 vote, to strike down limits in federal law on the total contributions wealthy individuals can make to candidates for Congress and president, political parties and political action committees. Stevens said the decision follows from the 2010 ruling in Citizens United that lifted limits on political spending by corporations and labor unions. Again, he was in the dissent in another 5-4 ruling.

Those cases, he said, talk about the importance of public participation in the electoral process. But this month’s decision on the overall limits is “not about electing your representative,” Stevens said. “It’s about financing the election of representatives of other people. It’s about the influence of out-of-state voters on the election in your district. It sort of exposes a basic flaw in the recent cases.”

Stevens marked his 94th birthday Sunday, still in excellent health, but lately feeling his age. Speaking to AP a few days before his birthday, he said, “It’s going to come and pass. I’m not sure it’s something to celebrate.”

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