THE BLOG
04/12/2010 11:56 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Learning on the Job


Thomas Jefferson said that to expect a man [today he would say person] to hold the same views throughout life, while life changed all around him, was like expecting a man to attempt to wear the same clothes he wore as a boy.

That observation came to mind in reading one commentary on the judicial life of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. It was observed that he was not asked one question about his views on abortion during his confirmation hearings and that as a Republican nominee he was unanimously confirmed by a Democratic Senate (of which I was a member). During his lengthy service on the Court he changed his views on a number of key issues, not least on the death penalty.

This is obviously surprising, if not stunning, in two regards: the Court has become an ideological tug-of-war principally in the past three decades, and politics has become inhabited by people who cannot or will not change their minds on virtually anything as life changes around them.

This has to do in part with the theme of this blog: principles should not be changed, but what Jefferson called "style" can be. Certainly for some people, on both sides, matters such as abortion, the death penalty, and related social issues are matters of principle. But, in the case of the death penalty, Justice Stevens' view on the matter changed because he came to see how poorly and unjustly it was being administered. The lesson has to do with the gap between principle and practice: in an ideal world, only mad-dog killers are executed; in practice, in the real world of fallible (or ideologically motivated) human beings, too many innocent people are executed. Experiencing this difference can cause thoughtful people to change their views, while still holding onto principle.

Like most of the ruminations on this Web site, this is a matter for lengthy discussions well into the night. What some might draw from it, however, is to hope for judges and policy-makers who are open to changing circumstances, mind-changing experiences, the evolution of human events, new evidence and information, and a temperment that is willing to question old assumptions.

Many, but certainly not all, of the large figures I was honored to serve with in the 1970s, when a Supreme Court justice could be unanimously confirmed and before the ideological wars began in America, were people perfectly capable of learning, thinking, adapting to new evidence, and, in a word, growing. Thereafter, things began to change.

Our nation will not resume its mainstream course forward until we learn to put leaders who are capable of learning on the job, and who possess a judicial temperment, back on the judicial bench and in the Congress.

To comment, please visit Senator Hart's blog at www.mattersofprinciple.com/.