John Paul Stevens, the bow-tied, independent-thinking, Republican-nominated justice who unexpectedly emerged as the Supreme Court's leading liberal, died Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after suffering a stroke Monday. He was 99.
During nearly 35 years on the court, Stevens stood for the freedom and dignity of individuals, be they students or immigrants or prisoners. He acted to limit the death penalty, squelch official prayer in schools, establish gay rights, promote racial equality and preserve legal abortion. He protected the rights of crime suspects and illegal immigrants facing deportation.
He influenced fellow justices to give foreign terrorism suspects held for years at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the right to plead for their release in U.S. courts.
Stevens served more than twice the average tenure for a justice and was only the second to mark his 90th birthday on the high court. From his appointment by President Gerald Ford in 1975 through his retirement in June 2010, he shaped decisions that touched countless aspects of American life.
“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement.
The White House issued a statement saying President Donald Trump and the first lady offered their condolences to Stevens’ family and friends and praising “his passion for the law and for our country.”
Stevens remained an active writer and speaker into his late 90s, surprising some when he came out against Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation after Kavanaugh’s angry denial of sexual assault allegations. Stevens wrote an autobiography, “The Making of a Justice: My First 94 Years,” that was released just after his 99th birthday in April 2019.
At first considered a centrist, Stevens came to be seen as a lion of liberalism. But he rejected that characterization.
“I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all,” Stevens told The New York Times in 2007. “I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative.”
The way Stevens saw it, he held to the same ground, but the court had shifted steadily to the right over the decades, creating the illusion that he was moving leftward.
He did change his views on some issues, however. He morphed from a critic of affirmative action to a supporter, and he came to believe the death penalty was wrong.
His legal reasoning was often described as unpredictable or idiosyncratic, especially in his early years on the court. He was a prolific writer of separate opinions laying out his own thinking, whether he agreed or disagreed with the majority’s ruling. Yet Stevens didn’t consider his methods novel. He tended toward a case-by-case approach, avoided sweeping judicial philosophies, and stayed mindful of precedent.
The white-haired Stevens, eyes often twinkling behind owlish glasses, was the picture of old-fashioned geniality on the court and off. He took an unusually courteous tone with lawyers arguing their cases, but he was no pushover. After his fellow justices fired off questions, Stevens would politely weigh in. “May I ask a question?” he’d ask gently, then quickly slice to the weakest point of a lawyer’s argument.
Stevens was especially concerned with the plight of ordinary citizens up against the government or other powerful interests — a type of struggle he witnessed as a boy.
When he was 14, his father, owner of a grand but failing Chicago hotel, was wrongly convicted of embezzlement. Ernest Stevens was vindicated on appeal, but decades later his son would say the family’s ordeal taught him that justice can misfire.
More often, however, Stevens credited his sensitivity to abuses of power by police and prosecutors to what he learned while representing criminal defendants in pro bono cases as a young Chicago lawyer.
He voiced only one regret about his Supreme Court career: that he had supported reinstating the death penalty in 1976. More than three decades later, Stevens publicly declared his opposition to capital punishment, saying that years of bad court decisions had overlooked racial bias, favored prosecutors and otherwise undermined his expectation that death sentences could be handed down fairly.
One of his harshest dissents came when the court lifted restrictions on spending by corporations and unions to sway elections. He called the 2010 Citizens United ruling, a 5-4 decision voiding caps on campaign fundraising “a rejection of the common sense of the American people” and a threat to democracy.
As he read parts of that opinion aloud, Stevens’ voice wavered uncharacteristically and he repeatedly stumbled over words. For the 90-year-old who’d worried he wouldn’t know when to bow out, it was a signal. “That was the day I decided to resign,” Stevens said later. He also disclosed in his autobiography that he had suffered a mini-stroke. Justice Elena Kagan took Stevens’ seat on the court.
The retirement of Stevens, known as a defender of strict separation of church and state, notably left the high court without a single Protestant member for the first time.
“I guess I’m the last WASP,” he joked, saying the issue was irrelevant to the justices’ work. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who joined the court in 2017, was raised Catholic, but attends a Protestant church.
A great-grandfather, Stevens eased into an active retirement of writing and speaking, still fit for swimming and tennis in Fort Lauderdale, where he and his second wife, Maryan, kept a home away from Washington.
He is survived by two daughters, Elizabeth and Susan, who were with him when he died. Other survivors include nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Stevens’ first wife, Elizabeth, second wife, Maryan, and two children died before him. Funeral arrangements are pending, the Supreme Court said in a statement announcing his death. But he is expected to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, next to Maryan.
Born in 1920, Stevens was a privileged child of a bygone era: He met Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh at the family hotel and was at the ballpark when Babe Ruth hit his famous “called-shot” home run in the 1932 World Series.
He joined the Navy the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he was awarded the Bronze Star for his service with a team breaking Japanese code. The code breakers’ work enabled the U.S. to shoot down a plane carrying the commander of the Japanese Navy, and that targeted wartime killing later contributed to his misgivings about the death penalty.
After World War II, Stevens graduated first in his class at Northwestern University’s law school and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge. As a lawyer he became an antitrust expert, experience he brought to Supreme Court rulings such as one ending the NCAA’s control over televised college football games.
President Richard Nixon appointed Stevens, a lifelong Republican, to the federal appeals court in Chicago. Judge Stevens was considered a moderate conservative when Ford — whose nominee would need the approval of a Democratic-controlled Senate — chose him for the Supreme Court.
Stevens won unanimous confirmation after uneventful hearings nothing like today’s partisan shows. Stevens’ liberal bent once on the high court was “different than I envisioned,” Ford acknowledged decades later, but he still supported and praised him as “a very good legal scholar.”
Stevens’ influence reached its height after other liberals retired in the early 1990s, leaving him the senior associate justice and the court’s leader on the left. For a dozen years after, he proved adept at drawing swing votes from Republican appointees Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, often frustrating conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Stevens’ clout diminished after Roberts arrived in 2005 and O’Connor was replaced by the more conservative Samuel Alito. But he didn’t lose spirit. Throughout his career, Stevens unleashed some of his most memorable language in defeat.
He wrote a scathing dissent in Bush v. Gore, the 2000 case that ended Florida's presidential recount and anointed George W. Bush with a 5-4 vote: “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.”