John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by President Gerald Ford but became a leader of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing by the time he retired in 2010, died today at a Florida hospital of complications following a stroke that he suffered yesterday. He was 99.
In a statement released by the Supreme Court’s Public Information Office, Chief Justice John Roberts described Stevens as a “son of the Midwest heartland” who “devoted his long life to public service.” Stevens, Roberts continued, “brought to our bench an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom, and independence. His unrelenting commitment to justice has left us a better nation.”
Stevens was born into a wealthy family in Chicago on April 20, 1920. His father, Ernest, earned a law degree but never practiced law. Instead, Ernest Stevens served as the manager of his father’s hotels – including the Stevens Hotel, which was the largest hotel in the world when it was built in 1926. A young John Paul Stevens met both Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh when they visited the hotel.
In 1933, Ernest Stevens was indicted on charges of embezzlement – along with John Paul Stevens’ grandfather, James Stevens, and his uncle, Raymond Stevens. The charges stemmed from a loan from an insurance company controlled by James Stevens to the Stevens Hotel during the Great Depression. Only Ernest Stevens stood trial: James Stevens died, while Raymond Stevens committed suicide. Ernest Stevens’ conviction was eventually reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court. Describing the episode in his recent memoir, Stevens observed that his “my firsthand knowledge of the criminal justice system’s fallibility has reinforced my conviction that the death penalty should be abolished.”
Stevens graduated from the University of Chicago and served as an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, working in the cryptography program. He received a Bronze Star for his work in the effort to down the plane of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had planned and executed the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After the war, Stevens earned a law degree from Northwestern University School of Law. His tuition was paid under the G.I. Bill, while his family’s living expenses were covered with money that his first wife, Elizabeth Sheeren, earned working as a riveter on airplane wings during the war.
After serving as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge, Stevens returned to Chicago in 1948, where he began to practice with the law firm that is now known as Jenner & Block. His work at the firm included antitrust cases, and in 1951 he took a job as the associate counsel to the Subcommittee on the Study of Monopoly Power of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. He left that job in 1952 to return to Chicago and form his own firm with two colleagues from his old law firm.
In 1969, Stevens served as counsel to a commission that was formed to investigate a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court and the possible influence on that ruling of the justices’ ownership of stock in the bank. The investigation led to the resignation of two justices.
In 1970, Stevens was nominated to the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. He served on that court until 1975, when Ford nominated him to serve as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, replacing William O. Douglas, who had served for over 36 years. Ironically, as Stevens wrote in his memoir, a major issue at Stevens’ confirmation hearing was the coronary bypass that he had undergone in 1973: Did he “have a sufficient life expectancy to justify the important appointment?” Stevens took his seat on December 19, 1975. He would serve as an associate justice for 34 years – becoming the third-longest-serving justice ever.
During his 34 years on the Supreme Court, Stevens was the author of a diverse set of important opinions. In Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, he wrote for a unanimous court in outlining the process by which courts should review federal agencies’ interpretation of the laws that the agencies administer. In Atkins v. Virginia, the court – by a vote of 6-3 – ruled that the Constitution bars the execution of the intellectually disabled. In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the court – by a vote of 5-3, with Chief Justice John Roberts recused – ruled that the use of military commissions to try terrorism suspects violated both the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention and had not been authorized by Congress. And in Kelo v. City of New London, a divided court ruled that the city’s taking of private property to sell for private development as part of an economic development plan was a “public use” within the meaning of the Constitution’s takings clause – even if the land was not going to be used for the public.
Stevens was equally well known for some of his dissents. In Texas v. Johnson, he dissented from the court’s holding that the burning of the American flag is protected by the First Amendment. In Bush v. Gore, Stevens wrote a dissent that was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Stevens lamented that time “will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today’s decision. One thing, however,” he continued, “is certain. 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.”
It was Stevens’ dissent in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the court ruled that the government cannot prohibit corporations or unions from spending money to support or criticize individual candidates in elections, that led to his decision to step down in 2010. While reading his dissent from the bench, Stevens stumbled over several words – apparently, although he did not realize it at the time, because he had suffered a mini-stroke. He announced his retirement in April and officially retired on June 29, 2010.
Stevens was prolific in his retirement, writing three books. The most recent book, “The Makings of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years,” was released earlier this year. He also did not hide his views. In the wake of last year’s shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the marches that followed, Stevens wrote an op-ed for the New York Times suggesting that the Second Amendment should be repealed.
Stevens was divorced from his first wife in 1979; he later married Maryan Mulholland, who died in 2015. Stevens had four children, nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. The statement released by the court’s Public Information Office tonight indicated that his daughters were with Stevens when he died. Plans for his funeral, the statement added, “will be released when available.”
This post was also published on SCOTUSblog.