Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens dead at age 99
WASHINGTON — John Paul Stevens, the second oldest and third longest-serving Supreme Court justice in history and a Republican president’s nominee who went on to lead the court’s liberal wing, died Tuesday at the age of 99.
Stevens died in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., of complications from a stroke he suffered on Monday, according to a Supreme Cout of the United States press release.
“On behalf of the Court and retired Justices, I am saddened to report that our colleague Justice John Paul Stevens has passed away,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in the release. “He brought to our bench an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom, and independence. His unrelenting commitment to justice has left us a better nation. We extend our deepest condolences to his children Elizabeth and Susan, and to his extended family.”
For 35 years, Stevens’ trademark bow tie and gentle mien belied a competitive edge that turned up in his opinions and dissents, most often defending the rights of individuals against the government.
Stevens’ brand of conservatism – a term he insisted still applied until his retirement in 2010 – all but disappeared during his long and distinguished career. He was a proud veteran of World War II and a code-breaker who went on to become a corruption-buster in his native Chicago. President Gerald Ford not only nominated him in 1975 but proudly defended him 30 years later in a letter to USA TODAY.
“I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination thirty years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Ford wrote a year before his death.
In lengthy interviews with The New Yorker and The New York Times near the end of his career, Stevens insisted that he had not changed his stripes but had simply withstood the court’s transformation from liberal to conservative. During that time, he came to align more with the court’s liberals than its new brand of conservatives, eventually becoming the senior justice on that side with the power to assign opinions and dissents.
Those dissents often went to himself and were perhaps his greatest contribution. In his last term, he penned a 90-page dissent to the court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which gave corporations the right to spend freely on elections.
“While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics,” he wrote.
And a decade earlier, he led the opponents of the high court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore, which ended the Florida recount and handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush.
“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,” he wrote. “It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
That concern over impartiality led Stevens to oppose Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation in October 2018, following Kavanaugh’s intemperate performance at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on allegations of sexual misconduct during his youth.
Guns, abortion, death penalty
On other issues, Stevens appeared to be a true liberal. He fiercely opposed Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion in 2008 that said the Second Amendment gave Americans the right to keep guns at home for self-defense, later calling for its repeal. And he stood firmly behind women’s right to choose their reproductive future.
“The societal costs of overruling (Roe v. Wade) at this late date would be enormous,” he wrote in a 1992 case. “Roe is an integral part of a correct understanding of both the concept of liberty and the basic equality of men and women.”
Stevens enjoyed his share of victories on the closely-divided court, including on a series of cases during Bush’s administration that gave prisoners at Guantanamo Bay the right to challenge their incarceration in U.S. courts, rather than military tribunals.
And in his last decade, the court also upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and banned the use of the death penalty against juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities, with Stevens leading the liberal wing against the court’s conservatives.
His greatest regret, he would later say, was his vote in 1976 to reinstate the death penalty after a four-year hiatus. By the end of his time on the high court, he had decided capital punishment was unconstitutional.
Court’s last World War II vet
Born in 1920, Stevens enlisted in the Navy just hours before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and later served out his time there as a cryptographer. His fierce patriotism led him to oppose the Supreme Court’s ruling that burning the American flag was a protected form of speech – a decision even Scalia supported.
Stevens had plans to become an English teacher until he was convinced he should attend Northwestern University School of Law, where he graduated at the top of his class in two years.
Content as a lawyer in Chicago, he was entering his sixth decade when President Richard Nixon named him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 1970. Five years later, Ford named him to succeed Justice William O. Douglas, whose record 36 years on the high court Stevens nearly matched. He was succeeded by Justice Elena Kagan in 2010.
Over the years, Stevens survived both prostate cancer and heart bypass surgery and was the picture of good health. He would spend nearly half the time the court was in session at his condominium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., reading briefs on the beach between tennis and golf matches. He swam in the Atlantic Ocean regularly until recent years, when he decided he was no longer safe without someone nearby to help him get out.
A devoted Chicago Cubs fan, Stevens was at Wrigley Field in 1932 when the New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth called his famous shot to center field. He threw out the first pitch at age 85, and attended Game 4 of the 2016 World Series in a red bowtie and Cubs jacket.
‘Maybe I should have had seven’
Since retiring from the court, Stevens maintained an active schedule of public speaking and wrote three books: “Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir,” “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” and “The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years.”
“It’s certainly not easy to get the Constitution amended, and perhaps that’s one flaw in the Constitution that I don’t mention in the book,” he said during a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY in 2014. While the book called for six new amendments, he mused, “Maybe I should have had seven.”
During the interview, Stevens correctly predicted the court would soon address same-sex marriage and government surveillance programs, and he said the court’s 2008 decision on guns wouldn’t be the final word.
As for bringing cameras into the court, Stevens was a traditionalist. “If you leave it up to members of the court, I don’t think there’s a chance in the foreseeable future,” he said. “The downside is that whenever you bring television into a new arena, you’re never sure what’s going to happen.”
And as for retirement, Stevens reveled in the time for golf, tennis and reading – lots of reading, particularly history.
“It’s amazing,” he said, “how many interesting things there are to learn about the world.”