John Paul Stevens, former U.S. Supreme Court justice, dies at 99

John Paul Stevens, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly 35 years and became its leading liberal, died Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after suffering a stroke on Monday. He was 99.

Stevens stood for the freedom and dignity of individuals, be they students or immigrants or prisoners. He acted to limit the death penalty, squelch official prayer in schools, establish gay rights, promote racial equality and preserve legal abortion. He protected the rights of crime suspects and illegal immigrants facing deportation.

He also influenced fellow justices to give foreign terrorism suspects held for years at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, naval base the right to plead for their release in U.S. courts.

As a federal appeals court judge in Chicago, Stevens was considered a moderate when Republican President Gerald Ford appointed him in 1975. On the Supreme Court he became known as an independent thinker and a voice for ordinary people against powerful interests. He retired in June 2010.

“He brought to our bench an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom and independence,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement. “His unrelenting commitment to justice has left us a better nation.”

Stevens remained an active writer and speaker into his late 90s, surprising some when he came out against Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation following Kavanaugh’s angry denial of sexual assault allegations. Stevens wrote an autobiography, The Making of a Justice: My First 94 Years, that was released just after his 99th birthday in April 2019.

At first considered a centrist, Stevens came to be seen as a lion of liberalism. But he rejected that characterization. The way Stevens saw it, he held to the same ground, but the court had shifted steadily to the right over the decades, creating the illusion that he was moving leftward.

He voiced only one regret about his Supreme Court career: that he had supported reinstating the death penalty in 1976. More than three decades later, Stevens publicly declared his opposition to capital punishment, saying that years of bad court decisions had overlooked racial bias, favoured prosecutors and otherwise undermined his expectation that death sentences could be handed down fairly.

One of his harshest dissents came when the court lifted restrictions on spending by corporations and unions to sway elections. He called the 2010 ruling “a rejection of the common sense of the American people” and a threat to democracy.

As he read parts of that opinion aloud, Stevens’s voice wavered uncharacteristically and he repeatedly stumbled over words. For the 90-year-old who’d worried he wouldn’t know when to bow out, it was a signal. “That was the day I decided to resign,” Stevens said later. He also disclosed in his autobiography that he had suffered a mini-stroke.


U.S. President Barack Obama awards a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Stevens during a ceremony at the White House in Washington on May 29, 2012. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Awarded the Bronze Star

Stevens is survived by two daughters, Elizabeth and Susan, who were with him when he died. Other survivors include nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Stevens’s first wife, Elizabeth, second wife, Maryan, and two children died before him. Funeral arrangements are pending, the Supreme Court said in a statement announcing his death. But he is expected to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, next to Maryan.

Born in 1920, Stevens was a privileged child of a bygone era. He joined the navy the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was awarded the Bronze Star for his service with a Japanese code-breaking team. The code breakers’ work enabled the U.S. to shoot down a plane carrying the commander of the Japanese navy, and that targeted wartime killing later contributed to his misgivings about the death penalty.

After the Second World War, Stevens graduated first in his class at Northwestern University’s law school and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge. As a lawyer he became an antitrust expert, experience he brought to Supreme Court rulings such as one ending the NCAA’s control over televised college football games.

Throughout his career, Stevens unleashed some of his most memorable language in defeat.

He wrote a scathing dissent in Bush vs. Gore, the 2000 case that ended Florida’s presidential recount and anointed George W. Bush: “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.”

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