fb-pixel Skip to main content

John Paul Stevens, liberal leader on Supreme Court, dies at 99

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post/file

John Paul Stevens, who was named a Supreme Court associate justice in 1975 because of his judicial centrism yet came to be its most consistently liberal vote, died Tuesday at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 99.

A Supreme Court announcement said Justice Stevens had suffered a stroke Monday.

Justice Stevens, who stepped down from the court in 2010, at age 90, was the second-oldest justice to serve, after Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and his nearly 35-year tenure was the third longest in the court’s history. Appointed by a Republican president, Gerald Ford, he was praised by a Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama, when he left the court.


Obama appointed Elena Kagan to his seat.

In a statement late Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts said, ‘‘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.’’

With his white hair, bow tie, and puckish smile, Justice Stevens had the look of an avuncular professor. He had a reputation for great kindliness — “If Stevens ran a gas station, it would be a wonderful place to work,” one of his law clerks once observed — and also for brilliance and intellectual flair. In 1988, Justice Harry Blackmun described him as “perhaps the most imaginative of all of us.”

A “judge’s judge,” Justice Stevens prided himself on writing his own opinions. After his retirement, he frequently wrote articles for The New York Review of Books and published several books, including “Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir” (2011) and “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution” (2014). In a 2018 op-ed article in The New York Times, Justice Stevens called for repeal of the Second Amendment.

“He writes his opinions himself and he writes them in English,” Susan Estrich, a University of Southern California law professor who once clerked for Justice Stevens, wrote in USA Today in 1995. “Maybe he would have had more influence on the court if he’d been more interested in winning five votes than in thinking.”


Preferring to go his own way, Justice Stevens eschewed behind-the-scenes politicking and coalition building. “The audience that I most frequently address,” he said of his fellow justices in a 1986 speech, “does not always seem to be listening to what I have to say.”

That changed in 1994. That year Justice Stevens became senior justice, which meant he assigned opinions whenever the chief justice wasn’t in the majority.

During his first term, Justice Stevens set a record for individual dissents for a freshman justice. It set a standard for independence he would maintain throughout his term on the high court. Justice Byron White nicknamed Justice Stevens “the one-eyed jack” because he so often went his own way, writing such a large number of dissents and concurring opinions.

For many years, a running joke among Supreme Court law clerks was that a ruling would be “4, 4, and Stevens” or “5, 3, and Stevens.”

“I just usually have trouble with the main dissent or the majority opinion, and don’t quite agree with the rationale,” Justice Stevens once said. “I think I have an obligation to explain my own reasoning.”

Justice Stevens did his explaining in notably clear and forthright prose.

“We simply hold that when the commission finds that a pig has entered the parlor, the exercise of its regulatory power does not depend on proof that the pig is obscene,” he wrote in his majority opinion in the Court’s 1978 ruling upholding the Federal Communications Commission’s decency standard.


In his 2000 Bush v. Gore dissent, he ringingly declared, “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of the this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as the impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

A judicial maverick, Justice Stevens was predictable only in his unpredictability. Although his vote was crucial in helping restore the constitutionality of the death penalty in 1976, he frequently voted to curb its use. He was a strong defender of the First Amendment, yet he cast a heated dissent when the court judged flag burning to fall under the heading of free speech in 1989.

“I’m the most conservative justice up here,” Justice Stevens liked to say. By conservative, he meant observing legal precedents and avoiding sweeping rulings. Even so, he was widely considered the leader of the court’s liberal wing during much of his final two decades on the bench.

Justice Stevens was born in Chicago on April 20, 1920, the fourth and youngest son of Ernest James Stevens and Elizabeth (Street) Stevens. He grew up a child of privilege. His father had built the largest hotel on Michigan Avenue, the Stevens Hotel. As a boy, Justice Stevens met the aviators Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. Apparently, the meetings made an impression: For many years, Justice Stevens piloted his own plane.


He was also at Wrigley Field for the 1932 World Series game where Babe Ruth is said to have called his home run.

Justice Stevens attended the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School, where he was cocaptain of the soccer team and picked up the habit of wearing a bow tie. He had difficulty tying more traditional neckware.

An English major, he studied Shakespeare with Norman Maclean, who would later write the classic novella “A River Runs Through It,” at the University of Chicago

“He taught me to read every word of a poem,” Justice Stevens said in a 2002 address. “That training helped me later, when trying to decipher law statutes.”

Justice Stevens earned his bachelor’s degree in 1941 and joined the Navy a year later. Stationed in Washington, he was awarded a Bronze Star for his work breaking Japanese codes.

After the war, he attended Northwestern Law School, where he graduated first in his class, and earned the highest grade point average in the school’s history. He clerked for Associate Justice Wiley Rutledge during the Supreme Court’s 1947-48 term.

Justice Stevens spent the next two decades in private practice in Chicago, gaining a reputation as one of the nation’s foremost antitrust experts. He took time out during the early ’50s to serve as associate counsel for a House subcommittee studying monopoly. He also taught antitrust law at Northwestern and the University of Chicago.


In 1969, Justice Stevens served as general counsel for an Illinois state crime commission investigating public corruption. The commission’s findings led to the resignation of two state Supreme Court justices and brought Justice Stevens widespread praise.

In 1970, Richard Nixon nominated him as a judge for the US Circuit Court of Appeals on the recommendation of a University of Chicago classmate, US Senator Charles Percy, an Illinois Republican.

Five years later, Justice Stevens helped solve a thorny problem for President Ford. Ford had to fill the seat of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whose impeachment then-House minority leader Ford had urged a few years earlier. The president needed the least-objectionable nominee possible.

“Find me another Lewis Powell,” Ford told Attorney General Edward Levi, referring to a sitting justice whose nomination by Nixon had elicited no controversy and much praise. Levi offered the name of Justice Stevens, describing him as a “moderate conservative in his approach to judicial problems.”

Justice Stevens’s nomination was widely hailed.

“He’s a first-rate lawyer, a first-rate judge, and a first-rate person — more than that you can’t ask for,” said University of Chicago law professor Philip Kurland.

The confirmation hearings took less than two days.

“It is the business of a judge to decide cases on the narrowest grounds possible and not to reach out for constitutional questions,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “You don’t have the freedom to substitute your own views for the law.”

The Senate confirmed him unanimously.

In 2005, Ford said “I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination 30 years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens to the US Supreme Court.”

In 1979, Justice Stevens divorced his first wife, Elizabeth (Sheeren) Stevens, and married Maryan (Mulholland) Stevens. She died in 2015.

He leaves two daughters, Elizabeth Jane Sesemann and Susan Roberta Mullen, nine grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren, according to The New York Times.

A bronze life master in bridge, Justice Stevens was a devoted tennis player, golfer, and ocean swimmer. In a 2014 interview, he told The New York Times that he no longer went into the water alone.

“My ocean swimming,” he lamented, “is dependent on the availability of handy lifeguards.”

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.