Retired Associate Justice John Paul Stevens
Justice John Paul Stevens told law students not to bend the rules. (Photo by John Disney/Staff)

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens on Wednesday spoke to more than 500 lawyers, federal and state judges and law students in Atlanta, focusing on what he said were the limits of the Fourth Amendment’s application to the government collection of cellphone data.

Stevens said the government is entitled to collect information on who makes calls to whom without a warrant to combat terrorism. Car owners must display license plates, which in a sense impairs privacy, he said, but it’s so commonplace that no one would think to object to it. Cellphone data is in the same category, he said.

“In my judgment, it is part of the price society pays for the benefits that a new device creates,” Stevens said.

Stevens recalled a 1979 decision by the high court, Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, which held that the telephone company’s installation of a pen register on a phone number at the behest of police to collect what numbers were being dialed from what phone was not an invasion of privacy and did not need a warrant. Obtaining contents of a call would require a warrant, the court said.

Stevens, who retired in 2010, gave his remarks at Georgia State University’s 53rd Henry J. Miller Lecture. Miller was a partner at Alston & Bird for more than 50 years.

After Stevens gave his remarks to a large gathering, he took questions from a smaller audience of law students.

His best advice for a new lawyer? Don’t be a know-it-all. “When you get into practice, don’t try and pretend just because you’re a lawyer you know all the answers,” said Stevens, adding, “Don’t bend the rules.”

Another student wanted to know why Supreme Court arguments are not televised. He said that if the arguments are televised, lawyers or the judges might make public statements that “are not helpful.”

Stevens was also asked why the Supreme Court does not publish the names of how justices vote on whether to hear a case. That might give the false impression that a justice has made up his or her mind about how a case should be resolved, he said.

One of the worst decisions by the court, he said, is Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), which held political campaign spending by corporations and other entities is free speech and protected by the First Amendment. Stevens wrote the dissent. Allowing companies, corporations and unions unfettered spending on political advertising and other tools takes the election process out of the hands of voters, who should be “entirely in control,” he said on Wednesday.

Asked what decision he was most proud of, he laughed and said, “That’s a good question. I don’t know.”