To the very end, John Paul Stevens was a different kind of Supreme Court justice and a distinctive individual. He died at age 99 on Tuesday, practically with pen in hand, having just finished his third book and deeply engaged in debate on the law.
The 1975 appointee of Republican President Gerald Ford offered proof of the notion – perhaps a quaint notion today – that jurists do not forever hew to the interests of the men who appointed them. Stevens became a liberal bulwark on the contemporary court. By the time he retired after a nearly 35-year tenure, he stood out for his trenchant dissents protesting the conservative majority, in cases from Bush v. Gore in 2000 to the Citizens United campaign finance ruling in 2010.
A brilliant yet unassuming Chicagoan who favored silk bowties, he was as genial and generous as he was prolific and long-serving. He telephoned me back in April, out of the blue, to chat about the current court and compare notes on our respective book endeavors. He sounded as sharp and energized as ever. Dividing his time between Washington and a home in Florida, he was still trying to take a daily swim in the ocean.
In public appearances, Stevens worried aloud about the state of national affairs, specifically President Donald Trump and what has been a partisan and confrontational approach to the bench.
“I hope he won’t do too much damage,” he told CNN anchor John Berman in a televised interview as he spoke of his recently released memoir. Asked if he thought Trump understood the role of the federal judiciary, Stevens said flatly, “No.”
The full assessment was classic Stevens: direct but not cheeky. The World War II Navy officer who earned the Bronze Star and then the highest grades in his class at Northwestern University law school was nonetheless most comfortable out of the limelight.
Yet even as his understated personal style and unfailing courtesy seemed to make him a relic of another era, he took a decidedly modern approach to the law. He voted for same-sex marriage and abortion rights and shifted his early views against racial remedies to support affirmative action and efforts for diversity. He passionately dissented as the Roberts Court majority rolled back campaign finance regulations.
“While American democracy is imperfect,” Stevens wrote in his last notable dissent, in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, “few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
As he penned commentary in retirement, Stevens continued to target the influence of big money on electoral politics. He also proposed repeal of the Second Amendment. One of the four dissenters to a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that declared an individual right to bear arms, Stevens in a 2018 New York Times op-ed wrote, “That decision – which I remain convinced was wrong and certainly was debatable – has provided the N.R.A. with a propaganda weapon of immense power.”
Stevens later explained to CNN the importance of his dissents and commentary into his late 90s: “Sometimes the country may rethink problems and may come to a different conclusion. And having your views out there should be part of the continuing debate about the issues.”
‘Signature pragmatism and modesty’
Silver-haired and soft-spoken even as he challenged the existing state of affairs, Stevens witnessed a transformed America as well as changed legal landscape. Born in 1920, he was the son of a wealthy Chicago developer and became a private pilot, champion bridge player and tennis enthusiast.
He was “good with a racquet,” he once told me, again understating things as he recounted a time that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (now retired) challenged him to a table-tennis match. As he toured and touted his new memoir (“The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years”) this spring, he referred to his proficiency at ping pong.
In a similar vein, even as he served as the senior liberal on the high court from 1994 (when Justice Harry Blackmun retired) to 2010, assigning opinions for the left and crafting compromises for narrow majorities when possible, Stevens downplayed his leadership.
He wrote the majority opinion in a 2007 milestone case related to the climate crisis that found the Environmental Protection Agency had authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Massachusetts v. EPA was decided 5-4. Stevens also helped build another five-justice coalition that enhanced the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.
The effort, manifest in a 2000 decision ensuring that all facts that increase a defendant’s potential sentence be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt, was a strong interest of the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia as well.
“I led the charge,” Scalia told me in one of our interviews over the years. When I happened to relate that remark to the more senior Stevens, he suggested that was not exactly how he would put it. But Stevens quickly added, “If that’s the way he assesses it, that’s OK. I’m happy to have him think he led the charge.”
That sentiment reflected what former President Barack Obama on Wednesday called Stevens’ “signature pragmatism and modesty.”
From Babe Ruth to Brett Kavanaugh
Stevens sat ringside to history, meeting Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh at his family’s hotel and forever recounting his presence at Wrigley Field when Babe Ruth called his shot and hit a home run in the 1932 World Series.
Early in his legal career, Stevens, who had been a law clerk to Justice Wiley Rutledge, specialized in antitrust law. President Richard Nixon appointed Stevens in 1970 to the Chicago-based 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1975, Ford took the advice of his Attorney General Edward Levi (also a Chicagoan) and elevated Stevens to the seat of retiring Justice William O. Douglas.
The Senate confirmed Stevens by a 98-0 vote in December 1975. The justice often expressed amazement that the Senate Judiciary Committee never asked his views on Roe v. Wade, which the Supreme Court had decided in 1973. It was a sign of how little the decision that made abortion legal nationwide had then entered the political sphere when it came to confirming justices.
It was also a sign of how different judicial politics were in Stevens’ early chapters on the high court. During most of his tenure he served with justices who defied easy ideological label, such as Byron White, an appointee of President John F. Kennedy who regularly voted on the right; Lewis Powell, a Nixon appointee who amassed a moderate record; and David Souter, who was named by George H.W. Bush and became known for liberalism in sync with Stevens. (Many Republicans later criticized Souter, considering his record a betrayal, and GOP presidents since his 1990 appointment have more carefully screened their high court candidates.)
Souter retired in 2009, a year before Stevens, and the full end of the age of justices unaligned with their presidential benefactors came in 2018, with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist conservative appointed by Ronald Reagan.
During the confirmation of Kennedy’s successor, Brett Kavanaugh, Stevens expressed dismay about the volatile hearings and said there was “merit” to criticism that Trump’s nominee had “demonstrated potential bias” toward some potential litigants.
But Stevens softened on that score in recent months, telling CNN’s Berman, “Perhaps I shouldn’t have said what I did. I think his decisions will determine how good a judge he’ll be.”