John Paul Stevens, the third-longest serving justice in U.S. Supreme Court history and a court figure whose influence grew markedly over his tenure, has died.
He was 99. The Associated Press reported that he died Tuesday in Florida after suffering a stroke Monday.
The bow-tie-wearing Chicago Republican served from December 1975 to June 2010, a term on the court only eclipsed by those of William O. Douglas (1939-75) and Stephen Field (1863-97). At the age of 90, Stevens was the second-oldest justice ever at the time of his retirement, behind only Oliver Wendell Holmes.
“He was not a justice who sought to become a celebrity or to assume the role of legal oracle,” said George Washington Law School professor Jonathan Turley in a 2009 Northwestern University alumni magazine profile.
“He is the quintessential judge — someone who holds to that traditional view that the function of any judge or justice is to decide cases fairly and clearly. His opinions have a distinctly Midwestern character: strong, honest and direct.”
Stevens’ Supreme Court career came at at time of a distinct ideological shift. He was nominated in 1975 by President Gerald Ford as the court was moving away from its most-liberal period, one dominated by such figures as Earl Warren, Hugo Black, William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall and Douglas, the liberal firebrand whom Stevens replaced.
By the time of his retirement in 2010, liberals were hoping that President Barack Obama’s choice of Elena Kagan would help balance a conservative court that had been dominated in recent years by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and his successor, John Roberts, as well as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
During those years, Stevens evolved from a centrist and pragmatist to someone who was often the court’s most-liberal voice. His later years were marked by a number of scathing dissents, including in Bush v. Gore, the case that decided the 2000 presidential election, and Citizens United v. FEC, the landmark 2010 election finance case. He also shifted to more liberal positions over the years on affirmative action and the death penalty
“He has served his nation well,” Ford wrote to Fordham Law School in 2005, “at all times carrying out his duties with dignity, intellect and without partisan political concerns. Justice Stevens has made me and our fellow citizens proud of my three-decade-old decision to appoint him to the Supreme Court.”
Even after his tenure ended, he made his voice heard. In 2018, he wrote a much-circulated column for the New York Times urging the repeal of the Second Amendment. He also spoke out against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. In 2019, the 99-year-old went on the interview circuit to promote his newest book, “The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years.”
Roberts said Tuesday night of Stevens: “A son of the Midwest heartland and a veteran of World War II, Justice Stevens devoted his long life to public service, including 35 years on the Supreme Court. He brought to our bench an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom, and independence.“
“Justice Stevens was a remarkable man,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “He was the leading liberal on the Court & he was brilliant & full of grace & class. Having argued 9 cases before SCOTUS, I can tell you first-hand there was no more dangerous or effective questioner than Justice Stevens.“
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump also offered condolences in a statement, noting “his passion for the law and our country.”
John Paul Stevens was born April 20, 1920, in Chicago. His father owned the Stevens Hotel, and the young Stevens often had contact there with the celebrities of the day, including aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
A lifelong Cubs fan, he was a boyhood witness to one of the most famous moments in baseball history, when Yankees icon Babe Ruth is supposed to have responded to heckling by the Cubs by pointing to the outfield stands and then clouting a World Series home run near that spot.
"Stevens recalled," the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2016, "hearing the heckling coming from the Cubs dugout — particularly the razzing from [pitcher Guy] Bush — and clearly seeing Ruth holding up two fingers in a gesture toward center field."
Stevens graduated from the University of Chicago in 1941 and Northwestern University Law School six years later, having served as a naval officer in in the interim and earning a Bronze Star during World War II.
After law school, he served as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge, then went into private practice in Chicago. His reputation grew and in 1970, President Richard Nixon tabbed him for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. “There was a consensus in the legal community,” wrote his biographers in “The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789-1995,” “that Stevens was an unusually able jurist.”
In 1975, a vacancy occurred on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Douglas didn’t want to retire — he detested Ford and didn’t want him to pick his successor — but after a severe stroke in December 1974, his health declined sharply. According to “The Brethren” by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, Ford had a list of 10 candidates. He narrowed it down to Stevens and Circuit Court Judge Arlin Adams before settling on Stevens.
“On the basis of a few moments of small talk,” Woodward and Armstrong wrote, “Ford had preferred Stevens. Stevens also seemed to have no partisan politics, no strict ideology. His anonymity would ensure a quick confirmation.”
The confirmation was indeed easy — Stevens was approved by a vote of 98-0. He was sworn in Dec. 19, 1975, little more than a month after Douglas retired. Stevens started quickly, writing the majority opinion in his first case, Hampton v. Mow Sun Wong, a jobs discrimination ruling.
In 1976, he joined the majority in Gregg v. Georgia, a case that allowed the restoration of the death penalty in the United States. It overturned a 1972 verdict in which Douglas had voted the other way.
Two years later, he was part of a fractured majority in the Bakke case, which put the brakes on some affirmative action policies. That same year, he wrote the majority opinion for FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation, upholding an obscenity ruling revolving around the broadcast of a George Carlin comedy routine. In both cases, he voted with the court’s conservatives.
Gradually, though, Stevens became more and more associated with the court’s shrinking liberal wing, though it’s a matter of debate as to whether he changed or whether the court simply outflanked him on the right.
“I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all,” he was quoted as saying in the New York Times in 2007. “I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative.”
A number of his most-prominent opinions certainly can’t be considered liberal. In 1997, he wrote for a unanimous court in Clinton v. Jones, a case that allowed Paula Jones’s lawsuit against Bill Clinton to continue even though he was president. He also wrote the dissents in a pair of cases (Texas v. Johnson, U.S. v. Eichman) that upheld the right to burn an American flag.
Still, Stevens clearly moved to the left on some issues, changing his view on the death penalty — in a 2008 decision, he said he now believed it to be unconstitutional — and affirmative action, forming part of the 5-4 majority in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case.
With the 1994 retirement of Harry Blackmun, he became the senior associate justice, a position that allowed him to assign either the majority or minority opinion in each case. He became known for his ability to use that power to build coalitions in such cases as Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006) and Rasul v. Bush (2004), civil liberties cases resulting from the war on terror. In both cases, the rulings went against the Bush administration.
He was also part of the majority in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which overturned restrictions on same-sex sexual activity, and wrote the opinion in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) that deemed it unconstitutional to execute mentally handicapped defendants.
“It is largely because of him” wrote the Washington Post’s Charles Lane in 2006, “that a court with seven Republican-appointed members, and nominally headed by a conservative, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, produced a string of relatively liberal results in recent cases.”
Stevens also wrote a number of prominent dissents.
In December 2000, he was on the short end of a 5-4 vote in Bush v. Gore, the decision that ended the legal wrangling over that year’s presidential election. His dissent was scathing: “Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today’s decision. One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
Stevens was also in the minority in the 2010 Citizens United case, which struck down campaign financing restrictions.
His dissent in the 5-4 ruling ran 90 pages: “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense.”
Through the years, Stevens never attracted much attention from the public.
“The man himself, it is agreed, is quiet and mild-mannered,” wrote “The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789-1995.”
“At one time or another, he has played serious squash, bridge, tennis and golf and flown his own small airplane. He possesses a puckishness that now and then finds its way into his opinions — particularly his concurrences and dissents. Justice Stevens has a fondness for bow ties, which, too, in its way, is a dissenting opinion.”
After his retirement, Stevens attributed his longevity to one simple thing — having married a dietitian, Maryan Mulholland Stevens in 1979, shortly after his divorce from Elizabeth, his first wife. “The most important key to my survival,” Stevens said, “is the advice I’d give to everybody in the room: Marry a beautiful dietitian.” She died in 2015.
Stevens later wrote a book titled “Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir” that focused on the five chief justices of his professional career, starting with Fred Vinson. It was a low-key book that reflected his great respect for the institution, though not without both praise and pointed criticisms for some of his fellow justices. In 2014, he followed with “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.”
Asked in April 2014 on ABC’s “This Week” about his achievements, Stevens offered a mixed view.
“It’s really awfully hard because it’s a series of individual, important events,” he said. “And some are terribly disappointing and some are terribly gratifying. you mix them all together, it’s really hard to pass judgment on the entirety.”
“All I can say, I did the best I could. I didn’t do well enough on many occasions.”
Five years later, NPR’s Nina Totenberg asked Stevens, fresh off a table tennis game in his Florida condo, to elaborate on his overriding judicial policy.
"I'm a person who plays Ping-Pong once in a while," he told her.
Jennifer Epstein contributed to this report.