Learning on the Job

Author: Gary Hart

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 blogsite, 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.

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8 Responses to “Learning on the Job”

  1. Gary Hart: Learning on the Job | GoodPorkBadPork.com Says:

    [...] 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 http://www.mattersofprinciple.com/. [...]

  2. Gary Hart: Learning on the Job | Goo News Says:

    [...] To comment, please visit Senator Hart’s blog at http://www.mattersofprinciple.com/. [...]

  3. Jeff Simpson Says:

    There are some that view being open to persuasion as a sign of weakness, and for whom dogma is king. It is impossible to reach a fair compromise with someone whose conclusions are pre-ordained and predictable based on ideological affiliation. And yet voters and their elected officials see fit to place these obstinate, intractable individuals into positions of power and authority. This taint, this political will for cultivating reality denialists of all types, is becoming more and more prevalent; this, despite obvious wake-up calls to the contrary. Inflexible automatons are clear obstructions to progress in the face of history as it unfolds.

  4. Forest Henry Book Says:

    The Irish writer John O’Donohue writes: “The imagination has no patience with repetition. The old cliches of explanation and meaning are unmasked and their trite transparency no longer offers shelter. We become interested in what might be rather than what has always been. Experimentation, adventure and innovation lure us towards new horizons. What we never thought possible now becomes an urgent and exciting pathway.” This I believe is the grace of change. “To take our country back.” or any of the other variations on that theme give rise to one central question: Take us back to what? And in light of our American character being one of innovation, discovery, and optimism: why would we want to go back? Onward to the vibrancy of our national imagination is our agile American bravery. Our strength.

  5. Phineas Says:

    Where would jurisprudence be without seat 3 of the U.S. Supreme Court?

  6. John Says:

    You can learn on the job in a lifetime aoppointment and if you want to learn. Scilia has not learned a thing.

  7. Nancy Lee Says:

    Gary Hart makes some very wise observations. When I lived in Boulder, Co, there was an inscription on the library: “He who knows only of his own generation remains forever a child.” I think of many of the loud, angry people who shouted at the town hall meetings last year appeared to be stuck in some past fantasy of their childhood years. They cannot accept that the world has changed and do not know how to move forward.
    I think of the people who are behind this current anger: Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulture, Sean Hannity………..these are people who rant and rage like children. They do not accept the face of Barack Obama’s presidency so they throw a tantrum and scream about “taking back the country”. Take it back to what? The Bush Administration?
    Tonight on the Daily Show I learned that retiring Justice Stevens was the only Protestant on the Court. Two members are Jewish and the rest are Catholic. I suppose that shows the shift in the population of the country, but it is curious that other than the new Hispanic judge, the other Catholics are all extremely conservative. That is a big change because in the past, most Catholics were more liberal and tended to be Democrats.
    Would those who complain about the nations direction want more “equal” representation with another “liberal” Protestant judge to balance the Courts decidely conservative swing?

  8. Brian Says:

    You make an excellent point Mr. Hart, one I completely agree with. A truly wise person will question their views and beliefs. My political views have drastically shifted over the past 6 months. Unfortunately, people who change their views are often criticized as “spineless” and people lose respect for them. There is a difference between somebody who changes their views for politics, and somebody who changes them for legitimate reasons. Unfortunately, many people nowadays don’t make that distinction.

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