(CNN) -- Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who announced his retirement Friday, has served as a central liberal voice on the high court, at times leading negotiations to sway opinions on critical cases -- and ultimately having a remarkable impact on the court and on society at large.
After joining the court in 1975, the choice of President Gerald Ford, a Republican, Stevens went on to become "an unexpected liberal -- someone who moved to the left as the court moved to the right," said Jeffrey Toobin, CNN senior legal analyst.
But in Stevens' view, it is the court that changed, said Toobin, who recently interviewed Stevens. "I think there is something to support that view -- there are certainly areas of the law where the court has changed," Toobin said. "I also think he has changed."
Stevens "became the leader of the liberals on the court," a staunch defender of abortion rights and affirmative action, said Toobin. One decision he'll most likely be remembered for is striking down the Bush administration's treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said Toobin. Also a memorable part of Steven's legacy is the lead dissenting opinion he wrote in Bush v. Gore -- the case that ended the contested presidential election of 2000.
The detainees case showed Stevens as as a negotiator who "was able to bring people together," said John King, CNN chief national correspondent.
"Whether you agree or disagree in the country with the decisions he's made over 34 years, he's had a remarkable imprint on the court and a remarkable imprint on American society," King said.
Known for his courtesy and quick wit, he has also been nicknamed "maverick" for his numerous, sharply worded dissents. Stevens also stood out as the one justice to support the idea of cameras in the courtroom.
Stevens was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 20, 1920. He got his bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago, and his law degree from Northwestern University.
He served in the Navy from 1942 to 1945. He became an intelligence officer in World War II, earning a Bronze Star.
Afterward, he decided to become a lawyer. "At the time, I was trying to decide what to do, and it seemed like a sensible move," Stevens told CNN in 2009, with his characteristic Midwestern modesty.
His stellar academic performance earned him a prestigious Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Wiley Rutledge in 1947-48. Stevens in 1949 then settled into comfortable, familiar surroundings as private attorney in Chicago, specializing in antitrust law.
He served as associate counsel to a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1951 and 1952.
Two decades later, he was serving as a judge on a U.S. Appeals Court when Ford nominated him to the high court.
Stevens is married to Maryan Mulholland. He had four children from a previous marriage -- a son who died of cancer in 1996, and three daughters.
The oldest member of the court, Stevens has been a difficult justice to peg. "He's not someone who's historically been a champion of either political camp," said Eduardo Penalver, a former Stevens law clerk. "He was a humble person who despite his position and stature, was at ease with all kinds of people, and able to bring them together."
On the bench, Stevens is remembered for taking out of a case only what was presented to him, refusing to issue sweeping pronouncements on judicial philosophy. This minimalist approach earned him both praise and criticism, but colleagues say he never swayed. "It is not our job to apply laws that have not yet been written," he once said.
"Stevens is probably one of the least known justices publicly, and it's ironic because he has had as big an impact on the Supreme Court and on American society as any justice," said Clifford Sloan, a 1985 law clerk and now a private attorney. "But his niceness and his unassuming manner should not be mistaken for any kind of softness. He has the sharpest mind I've ever encountered."
"Especially in a day and age when both parties jockey -- certainly more on the right -- to nominate judges who they see as transforming the law and embracing fairly strong ideological positions, Justice Stevens was the opposite of that, someone who was very skeptical of that style of judging," Sloan said.
That "clean" reputation was just what President Ford was looking for in 1975, when Justice William Douglas retired after a debilitating stroke.
The Watergate scandal's wake had left a nation angry and divided. Ford hoped a moderate, nonpolitical judge would inspire greater public confidence in government.
Stevens' early years on the high court found him in agreement with many of his fellow conservatives. In his first year, he wrote opinions that reinstated the death penalty after a four-year moratorium.
These important rulings, however, imposed new legal standards, upholding the use of so-called "discretionary" guidelines for juries when deciding life or death, such as mitigating or aggravating factors, in a separate sentencing phase of a trial. And the court threw out "mandatory" death sentences for certain crimes, like murder or rape, which disregarded aspects of the offense that might favor the defendant.
Another early opinion by Stevens gained him instant public renown. In FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (1978), the justices upheld the government's authority to regulate "indecent" speech, which Stevens famously defined as any depiction or description of "sexual or excretory activities or organs" in a manner that it deems "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."
The offending speech in the case in question was an infamous monologue by comedian George Carlin, who spoke about society's taboo surrounding "seven dirty words." But Stevens steered clear of a philosophical discourse on the First Amendment, choosing instead what became his trademark, the practical effect of court rulings. His justification for suppressing "dirty" speech: protecting young children, who might be watching or listening.
In recent years however, Stevens has led the court away, in some cases, from restrictive government censorship of risque speech or content. Beginning in 1997, he was the driving force striking down several attempts by Congress to protect children from pornography on the Internet, saying it violated the free speech rights of adults.
Other cases in Stevens' early years reflected his more conservative roots: upholding federal funding restrictions for abortions, and limiting affirmative action programs.
But with the elevation of William Rehnquist to chief justice in 1986, and the addition of more conservative justices, Stevens came to be viewed by many political observers as a "transformed" liberal.
Many legal scholars, however, rejected that label. "He was thought to be what I call an 'Establishment' Republican -- not an ideologue," when he joined the court, said Edward Lazarus, a onetime Supreme Court law clerk and author of "Closed Chambers."
"Whether that label was true or not, whoever John Paul Stevens was in 1975 is pretty much what you see today. So ironically, an Establishment Republican became the leader of the liberal wing of the court, and that says a lot about how far this court has drifted to the right over the last 30 some years," Lazarus said.
Nearly every important social issue before the court in recent years has had Stevens' imprint, including the 1985 opinion striking down Alabama's "moment of silence" for prayer or meditation in public schools.
A year later he dissented in an opinion upholding anti-sodomy laws. "When I clerked for him, the Supreme Court ruled it was OK to have criminal penalties for gay, consensual sex, something he disagreed with," recalled Sloan. "Seventeen years later [in 2003] the Supreme Court reversed that position and said Justice Stevens was right."
In a 2005 speech, Stevens issued a biting critique of capital punishment, stopping just short of calling for its abolition. "With the benefit of DNA evidence, we have learned that a substantial number of death sentences have been imposed erroneously," he said. "That evidence is profoundly significant, not only because of its relevance to the debate about the wisdom of continuing to administer capital punishment, but also because it indicates that there must be serious flaws in our administration of criminal justice."
In recent years, Stevens' emergence as a profound, influential voice had, in many ways, come to dominate the fractured court.
"He really strived for a kind of fairness in his jurisprudence," said Penalver, "a nuance that resists ideological characterizations. He wasn't a hero of the right like [Antonin] Scalia, or a hero of the left like [William] Brennan or [Thurgood] Marshall.
"He's done his own thing and that idiosyncrasy has in some ways kept him from the limelight."