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By most accounts, President Gerald R. Ford’s legal legacy was one of the high points of his 896 days in office. Taking over the White House in the wake of the Watergate scandal, his attempt to end the “national nightmare” was, at its core, a legal matter. With indictments against some of the highest law enforcement officials in the nation, Ford knew that restoring faith in the Justice Department was one of the central elements of this process. One of the first indications of the seriousness with which Ford took this task was his choice for attorney general: Edward Levi, the distinguished University of Chicago Law School dean who had no political affiliation with the president or his party. Ford gave Levi his full support and faith and stayed far away from any of the internal decision-making of the Justice Department, say former department officials. “The remarkable thing about Ford’s administration was how independent the Justice Department was from any political influence,” says John Buckley, a special assistant to Levi and now a partner at Williams & Connolly. Ford’s efforts to win back the trust of the American public showed in his decision to pardon Richard Nixon. Although the move was highly unpopular at the time, Ford thought it was an important part of the “healing process” — a belief politicians and scholars have come to agree with. Of the 62 judges Ford sent to the courts, one proved to be his proudest accomplishment in office: John Paul Stevens, his sole Supreme Court nominee. “I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination 30 years ago,” Ford wrote in 2005 for a celebration of Stevens’ three decades on the Court. Ford’s words were all the more notable because some conservatives have attacked Stevens’ jurisprudence, which falls into the more liberal wing of the high court. Unlike today’s partisan appointments, Stevens’ Senate confirmation was without much controversy. Judge Patrick Higginbotham, whose confirmation to a district court in Texas occurred the same day as Stevens’, recalls a feeling of geniality and warmth from the Senate that day. “The most conspicuous thing in my memory was the absence of anything that wasn’t straightforward,” says Higginbotham, now a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. But if Stevens’ nomination was one of Ford’s most enduring legacies, Ford’s efforts to influence the Supreme Court were not always as popular — or as moderate. In 1970, then-Republican House Leader Ford tried to impeach the liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas — the man whose resignation would prompt Stevens’ nomination. Though Douglas was hardly the epitome of moral virtue, most observers saw Ford’s efforts — and his incendiary language against Douglas — “as a reprisal for Richard Nixon’s two Senate defeats” for the Supreme Court, Time magazine wrote in April 1970. “You’re surprised to remember Ford being a devout partisan when you look at his legacy in the White House,” says A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor. “It’s a small part of a large career but shows how even decent people can fall prey to partisanship.”
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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