Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, at Public Citizen’s 2013 Gala honoring the lifetime achievements of Stevens. Photo by Brendan Hoffman.

“What can you say in three minutes about someone who has dispensed justice for 35 years on the Supreme Court?”

So asked Alan Morrison, founder of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, as he introduced retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens tonight at Public Citizen’s annual gala in downtown Washington, D.C. Stevens was there to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his “gentleness, decency, searing intellect and passion for what is right” – from which all Americans have benefited, in the words of Public Citizen President Robert Weissman, who presented the award to Stevens.

While on the bench, Stevens, the third longest-serving justice in American history, displayed a deep concern with ensuring the fair treatment of all. He wrote a blistering dissent to the now infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which gave corporations the green light to spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections.

Tonight, Stevens sat on the stage with Linda Greenhouse, former Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times, for a chat before a crowd of just under 400 Public Citizen supporters. The former justice received a standing ovation before he even began speaking.

“Obviously, Justice Stevens is a rock star in this crowd,” Greenhouse remarked.

Their conversation touched on everything from sovereign immunity and Stevens’ confirmation hearing to the Bush v. Gore decision (Stevens said he often reflects about how treating hanging chads differently from dimpled chads was hard to accept). Stevens answered questions with alacrity and humor.

He still reads every opinion the Supreme Court issues (“I find it interesting reading”). His record of guessing the outcomes of cases is, well, not very good, although he said he accurately predicted that the ruling on the Affordable Health Care Act would be 5-4 and that it would be upheld.

Oral arguments, he said, were valuable: “They are a very important part of the process … it often changes your analysis of the case … it has affected my thinking.”

On his record 720 dissenting opinions, he wryly noted, “That should entitle me to the lifetime failure award.”

When Stevens accepted his award – to yet another standing ovation – he smiled.

“This is a more moving occasion than I thought it would be,” he said.

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See more coverage of the event in Bloomberg, Huffington Post and Salon.

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