Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, who led liberal wing, dies at 99

The cause was complications from a stroke he suffered the day before, the Supreme Court announced in a statement.

Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, who led liberal wing, dies at 99

The cause was complications from a stroke he suffered the day before, the Supreme Court announced in a statement.

When he retired in 2010 at age 90, Stevens was the second-oldest and the second-longest-serving justice ever to sit on the court. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was about eight months older when he retired in 1932, and William O. Douglas had served 36 years (1939-75).

Stevens had spent much of his service on the court in the shadow of more readily definable colleagues when he emerged as a central figure during a crucial period of the court’s history: The last phase of Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s tenure and the early years under Chief Justice John Roberts.

It was a time when the court took an active role in balancing individual liberty and national security and in policing the constitutional separation of powers, asserting a muscular brand of judicial authority that was welcomed by neither the White House nor Congress.

Societal debates over the rights of gay men and lesbians, the role of race, private property rights, environmental regulation and the separation of church and state also made their way onto the Supreme Court’s docket, and Stevens, a low-key Republican from Chicago, was as surprised as anyone to find himself not only taking the liberal side but also becoming its ardent champion.

It was Stevens who wrote the court’s majority opinion in Rasul v. Bush, in 2004, which brought within the jurisdiction of the federal courts the hundreds of prisoners who had been captured as enemy combatants during the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

It was Stevens who wrote the majority opinion in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in 2006, which repudiated the Bush administration’s plan to put some of those detainees on trial by military commissions. “The Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law that prevails in this jurisdiction,” he declared.

On the domestic side, in 2002, it was Stevens who wrote the opinion in Atkins v. Virginia, declaring that the Constitution does not permit executing the mentally disabled. Such defendants “face a special risk of wrongful execution,” he said, because of their limited ability to understand their actions and participate in their own defense.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion in that case provided an example of how deeply divided the court was during those years on both methodology and outcomes. He complained that the 6-3 majority had simply enshrined its own views as constitutional law. “The arrogance of this assumption of power takes one’s breath away,” Scalia wrote.

Two years before that, Stevens had his own turn at a bitter dissent, in Bush v. Gore, the case that effectively decided the 2000 presidential election by stopping the Florida recount. Stevens, one of four dissenters, said the court’s action “can only lend credence to the most cynical appraisal of the work of judges throughout the land.”

He said that although the actual winner of the presidential election might remain unknown, “the identity of the loser is perfectly clear”: It was “the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

He became the senior associate justice in his 19th year on the court, upon the retirement of Justice Harry Blackmun in 1994. The role, which he appeared to enjoy, heightened his visibility and showed the world what his colleagues already knew: that he was actually a strategic thinker and canny tactician whose genial personality and impressive analytic power could forge a path that might have appeared blocked by the sheer arithmetic of a majority that was well to his right.

His frequent dissenting opinions, he said, arose from a conviction that both the public and the law were best served when differing views were expressed and explained, rather than suppressed for the sake of surface collegiality.

But the emergence of John Paul Stevens as the court’s most liberal justice was not simply a result of standing still amid a shifting landscape. His own views changed over time, moving to the left, particularly on the death penalty and on questions of racially conscious government policies. In 2008, he renounced capital punishment expressly, declaring that the time had come to reconsider “the justification for the death penalty itself.”

Stevens gave concrete application to his view of a limited role for the courts in one of his most important majority opinions, the 1984 case Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. The court held that when a federal statute is ambiguous, judges should generally defer to the interpretation of the agency charged with administering that statute rather than impose their own views of what Congress must have or should have meant.

“Federal judges — who have no constituency — have a duty to respect legitimate policy choices made by those who do,” Stevens wrote. Although the case remained obscure to the general public, it was a landmark of administrative law, and the term “Chevron deference” became commonplace in judicial decisions reviewing a seemingly endless array of federal regulations. For the rest of his career, Stevens looked back on the Chevron case with fondness and pride.

But while believing that judicial deference was often appropriate, he also believed that the federal courts must be available when other institutions of government failed to do their jobs. “I firmly believe that the Framers of the Constitution expected and intended the vast open spaces in our charter of government to be filled not only by legislative enactment but also by the common-law process of step-by-step adjudication,” he said in a 1991 speech at the University of Chicago.

That university was his alma mater, and his family had deep roots in Chicago. John Paul Stevens was born there on April 20, 1920, and grew up in a Georgian-style house in the Hyde Park neighborhood. He was the fourth son and youngest child of Ernest James Stevens and the former Elizabeth Street.

He was commissioned as an officer in the Navy on Dec. 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He spent most of his Navy service, which lasted until 1945, stationed at Pearl Harbor working on breaking Japanese codes, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star.

In 1942 he married Elizabeth Jane Sheeren, with whom he had a son and three daughters. The couple divorced in 1979, and Stevens married Maryan Mulholland Simon, a dietitian, the next year. She died in 2015. His son, John Joseph, died of cancer in 1996, and his daughter Kathryn preceded him in death.

He is survived by two daughters, Elizabeth Jane Sesemann and Susan Roberta Mullen, nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

He used the GI Bill to attend Northwestern University Law School, where he completed his degree in two years. He was editor-in-chief of the law review and graduated first in the class of 1947 with the highest grade-point average in the school’s history.

A Supreme Court clerkship was a natural sequel. He spent the court’s 1947-48 term as a law clerk to Justice Wiley B. Rutledge, who was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last Supreme Court appointee.

After his Supreme Court clerkship, Stevens returned to Chicago to begin what would be a 22-year career in private practice, handling regulatory and antitrust cases. Then in 1970, Sen. Charles H. Percy, R-Ill., who had been a University of Chicago classmate, proposed that the Nixon administration nominate him for a seat on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

He was a reluctant nominee, at first urging Percy to ask him again in six years. “I told John,” Percy later recalled, “if you wait six years, I may not be senator and there may not be a Republican president. And in that time you could be on the Supreme Court.”

Percy proved to be a better prophet than his reluctant nominee could have imagined upon Douglas’ retirement in November 1975. President Gerald R. Ford, who was about to enter a challenging re-election campaign, asked his attorney general, Edward H. Levi, to find a nominee who would win easy approval. Levi, a former dean of the University of Chicago Law School and president of the university, knew Stevens and recommended him highly. Stevens was confirmed by a vote of 98-0.

Three decades later later, Ford wrote: “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 U.S. Supreme Court.”

Among the positions for which Stevens was best known on the court was his insistence on strict separation of church and state. “Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy,” he wrote in dissent from a 2002 decision that upheld an Ohio program providing taxpayer-financed vouchers for religious school tuition.

In an abortion case in 1989, he was the only justice to take the position that a Missouri statute declaring that life begins at conception not only violated the court’s abortion precedents but also was impermissible as “an unequivocal endorsement of a religious tenet” that “serves no identifiable secular purpose.” Over the years, he was a strong defender of the court’s precedents defining the right to abortion.

He was also strongly on the federal government’s side in the court’s running debate over the proper allocation of federal and state power. He wrote the court’s 2005 opinion upholding the power of Congress to prohibit the use of marijuana for medical purposes in California and other states that had chosen to permit it. Later that year, he told a bar meeting in Las Vegas that while he agreed with “the policy choice made by millions of California voters,” it was nonetheless “pellucidly clear” that the court was obliged to uphold congressional authority.

In retirement he wrote frequently, particularly for The New York Review of Books, and in 2011 he published a memoir, “Five Chiefs.” In 2014 he published “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.” In that book he proposed constitutional amendments that would unambiguously define the federal government’s power to, among other things, regulate firearms, limit campaign contributions, ban capital punishment and prohibit election-district gerrymandering to give one party an advantage. This year, he published “The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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