John Paul Stevens, 1920–2019
The Supreme Court justice who became a liberal icon
John Paul Stevens denied undergoing a liberal conversion during his 35 years on the Supreme Court, the third-longest tenure in U.S. history. It was the other justices who changed, he insisted, as staunchly conservative Reagan and Bush appointees pushed the court to the right. Still, the emergence of Stevens—a Republican lawyer appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1975—as the court’s leading liberal voice surprised him as much as anyone. Before retiring in 2010 at age 90, he authored some 400 majority opinions, including landmark rulings that enforced the separation of church and state and curtailed executive overreach. He was also among the court’s most frequent dissenters, vehemently opposing decisions that broadened gun rights, abolished limits on corporate campaign spending, and effectively awarded the presidency in Bush v. Gore. That partisan 5-4 decision on Florida’s vote recount in 2000, he wrote in a scathing dissent, would critically damage “the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
Stevens was born in Chicago, where his grandfather, James, opened the world’s biggest hotel in 1927, said The New York Times. The Depression forced the sale of the 3,000-room Stevens Hotel—now the Hilton Chicago—and Stevens’ father was put on trial for looting the family insurance business “in a failed effort to keep the hotel afloat.” He was found guilty of embezzlement in 1933; the conviction was overturned the next year. The experience taught the young Stevens an enduring lesson about the very real harms of “overzealous prosecution,” said The Washington Post. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1941 and joined the Navy as an intelligence officer that December—one day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Stevens spent most of the war cracking Japanese codes in Hawaii, then attended Northwestern Law School, graduating with the highest grades in school history.
He practiced antitrust law in his hometown, said The Wall Street Journal, and in 1970 was named to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Richard Nixon. When President Ford sought an uncontroversial judge to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in 1975, Stevens’ “largely apolitical reputation played well in the aftermath of Watergate.” Confirmed by the Senate 98-0, Stevens was initially reliably conservative, joining a 5-4 majority to reinstate the death penalty in 1976. Yet in 1989 he cast his first of several votes upholding the constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, and in 1994 became the court’s senior associate justice, allowing him to assign opinion-writing duties whenever he opposed the chief justice. He also spoke for the majority in several decisions that checked executive power, including the 2006 opinion that blocked the Bush administration from holding military trials for detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, without congressional approval.
“Stevens’ trademark bow tie and gentle mien belied a competitive edge,” said USA Today. He tore into District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, which for the first time interpreted the Second Amendment as protecting an individual’s right to gun ownership, and wrote a 90-page dissent to 2010’s Citizens United v. FEC, which freed corporations from federal limits on campaign spending. After retiring that year, Stevens said his one regret was voting to uphold capital punishment, though he had joined majorities that ended executions for offenders younger than 18 and for those with mental disabilities. “Learning on the job is essential to the process of judging,” he said in 2005, calling the evolution of his views “one of the most important and rewarding aspects of my own experience.” ■