WASHINGTON, D.C. — Scores of former law clerks, friends and family, and protégés, including current Supreme Court justices, stood in vigil July 22, while the body of former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who had died a few days earlier at age 99, lay in state at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Among them was Preeta Bansal, erstwhile senior Obama administration official and former New York Solicitor General, who had clerked for Stevens at the Supreme Court from 1990 to 1991.
Bansal, a trailblazer, who was the first South Asian-American to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in the late 1990s and the only South Asian-American woman to have done so, also in the late 1990s organized the first-ever Supreme Court briefing and reception for the Indian and South Asian American community, which was keynoted by Stevens, who later interacted with the several hundred community leaders and members of the community from across the country who attended the special event on the workings of the Supreme Court as an integral branch of the U.S. government and the country’s Constitution.
She told India Abroad that since his passing on July 16, “I participated in a very meaningful and significant set of ceremonies in D.C. — including standing vigil over his body while he lay in repose at the Supreme Court. It was really meaningful.”
Bansal was also one of the earliest South Asian-Americans to clerk for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and the first South Asian-American woman to do so, and she said that the demise of Stevens — the oldest and the third-longest serving U.S. Supreme Court Justice in history — was “the passing of a true icon and a model of a statesman-judge who put principle, country and the rule of law above partisanship.
“Honored to have been able to know and work with him, to have been with him recently to celebrate and honor his remarkable 99 years of life, and to have been able to express my deep personal gratitude to him for the impact he had on my own life as well as on the life of our nation,” she said.
It was only a couple of months earlier, in May, that Bansal with several others who had clerked for Stevens, along with family and friends had been on hand in D.C. to celebrate Stevens’s 99th birthday.
In a Facebook post at the time, she said, “What a fabulous weekend celebrating U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ 99 years of life, and his lifetime of service to the rule of law.
“Nearly all of his former law clerks made it to the gathering. May we all live so healthfully and purposefully as this remarkable Midwesterner.”
Bansal said, “As I observed almost exactly 30 years ago when I first met him when interviewing for the privilege of being his law clerk, he is the kind of person that would be an amazing boss whether the job was at a gas station or at the United States Supreme Court — he embodies the wisdom that position and rank matter little; decency, kindness, humility, and continual openness/learning count above all else. A life well lived, and a commitment to justice.”
Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio’s legal correspondent and host of “All Things Considered,” describing the ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court, said, “The brief ceremony in the morning was as simple as simple could be. Justice Stevens, always a modest man, wanted no grand memorial service. So, the understated event was televised on C-SPAN, but only the court, his former law clerks, his family and the court press corps were invited to attend.”
“Outside, more than a hundred of the justice’s former clerks lined the steps as his flag-draped coffin was carried up the marble staircase,” she noted.
Justice Elena Kagan, who spoke for the court because she succeeded Justice Stevens upon his retirement, said, “He built up a body of work that demonstrates an extraordinary judicial wisdom unsurpassed by any modern justice,” and turning to Bansal and the other former law clerks, made the rueful observation to much laughter, “Now, let’s be frank. Justice Stevens, more than most justices, did not need law clerks.”