Jurisprudence

John Paul Stevens, Maverick and Conscience of the Supreme Court, Dies at 99

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens sitting for a portrait on May 9 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens on May 9 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Photo by Scott McIntyre/For the Washington Post via Getty Images

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died on Tuesday at 99. He was, in a thousand ways, the last gasp of an era.

Stevens was born on April 20, 1920, in Chicago, to a prosperous family that survived financial ruin in the 1930s. In the lobby of his family’s downtown Chicago hotel, the young John Stevens crossed paths with the likes of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. He lived his youth through the Jazz Age, the beginning and the end of Prohibition. He was, famously, in the stands of Wrigley Field with his father when Babe Ruth hit his called shot during the 1932 World Series.

After enlisting in the Navy and serving as a code breaker in World War II, Stevens was awarded a Bronze Star for his service. He was, in fact, the last sitting Supreme Court justice to have served in the military. He went to Northwestern Pritzker School of Law on the GI Bill and graduated magna cum laude with the highest GPA in the history of the school at that time.

Stevens was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 1970 by President Richard Nixon and then to the U.S. Supreme Court five years later by President Gerald Ford. In what may be the highest praise any justice could aspire to, Ford wrote just before his own death in 2005: “I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination thirty years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court.” The gentle white-haired former antitrust lawyer would surprise everyone, himself most of all, in becoming the left flank of a court he increasingly claimed he didn’t quite recognize.

Stevens retired in 2010, at age 90, as the third-longest-serving justice in the history of the court. In the coming days, you will hear a lot about his bowties, about his love of tennis, about the ways in which he drifted from the center-right to become, at the time of his retirement, the leader of the court’s left wing. But Stevens claimed that he never drifted anywhere; he held that the court had moved inexorably to his right while he steadfastly remained a moderate in the mold of Rockefeller Republicans of old.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Stevens drifting anywhere he didn’t choose to go. At times he was a maverick, a frequent lone dissenter, unafraid to stand alone in his convictions. Once, in an interview, Justice Antonin Scalia was asked which justice was his favorite sparring partner, and he named Stevens. “I think you should give the dissenter the respect to respond to the points that he makes. And so did John Stevens,” Scalia explained. “So he and I used to go back and forth almost endlessly.” Stevens, however, was also a unifying leader who will be remembered for his unusually effective ability to unite the four more liberal-leaning justices against the conservative majority.

Stevens was known for being the only justice to write his own first drafts, which he would pass along to his clerks with instructions along the general lines of “don’t let me look like an idiot.” For decades he was also the only justice to rely entirely on his own clerks’ recommendations about which cases the court should hear, rather than pooling his clerks with those of the other justices to review only a share of the petitions as all the other justices did. He reveled in debating with his young clerks, enthusiastically engaging their arguments and humbly treating them as intellectual peers.

But only fools would underestimate Stevens. It was his trademark move to interject himself into the rough and tumble back-and-forth of oral arguments by politely inquiring of advocates, “May I ask a question?” and often apologizing for taking up counsel’s time. Yet, frequent court advocates would assure you that what followed was always the toughest and most probing question of the day. Paul Clement, who served as solicitor general under President George W. Bush, once said that it was always Stevens’ questions that put you “on your guard because he’s probably found the one issue that puts your case on the line.”

Stevens will be remembered by constitutional scholars for a series of dissents near the end of his career—in Bush v. Gore, in Citizens United, in District of Columbia v. Heller—where he wrote persistently and persuasively about his aspirations for constitutional democracy, citizenship, and speech. Dissenting in Bush v. Gore he wrote—presciently—about the public loss of confidence in an impartial court:

The [majority opinion] can only lend credence to the most cynical appraisal of the work of judges throughout the land. It is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law. Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today’s decision. One thing, however, 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.

But for anyone who knew him, Stevens will be remembered as a genteel and gentle steward of the law; a quiet force who believed in American values and hopes, even as they disappointed him, and who fought tirelessly to build an America that lived up to his extraordinarily high standards. For all those who knew and loved him, living up to those standards could itself represent a life well lived. In interviews he gave as recently as last fall, Stevens implored us all to be better than what we have become, and to see what is best in one another, rather than trade in sneering, shadowy whispers. His most recent book, The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years, was published this past May. In an interview just a couple of months ago, upon publication of that book, he expressed deep distress at the current political discourse: “You wake up in the morning and you wonder what’s happened.” His death, representing the demise of both a maverick and a gentleman, a Republican and also a Democrat, a deeply reverent patriot and also a clear-eyed critic, signals the end of so much that, sadly, feels irremediably lost already.