John Paul Stevens died at the age of 99 on Tuesday in Florida after suffering a stroke the day before. He was the third-longest sitting US Supreme Court Justice in history.
Stevens was a Republican from Chicago who sat on SCOTUS from December 1975 until June 2010. Only William O. Douglas (1939-1975) and Stephen Field (1863-1897) served longer. When Stevens retired at the age of 90, he was the second-oldest justice ever at the time of his retirement. Only Oliver Wendell Holmes was older.
“He is the quintessential judge — someone who holds to that traditional view that the function of any judge or justice is to decide cases fairly and clearly. His opinions have a distinctly Midwestern character: strong, honest and direct,” said Jonathan Turley in 2009, George Washington Law School professor writing in the Northwestern University alumni magazine profile.
President Gerald Ford nominated Stevens in 1975 to replace Douglas, a liberal stalwart. The court had begun its move away from one of its most progressive moments in American history. When Stevens retired in 2010, President Obama nominated Elena Kagan to help liberalize what was then a conservative court that had been dominated by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and his successor, John Roberts. Between 1975 and 2010 Stevens had moved from the center as a pragmatist to a justice who was frequently the most liberal voice on the bench. Later in his career he became famous for his merciless dissents in such cases as Bush v. Gore, the case that the 2000 presidential election tipped on; and Citizens United v. FEC, the landmark election finance case. But he was also more liberal on issues like affirmative action and the death penalty.
“He has served his nation well,” Ford wrote to Fordham Law School in 2005, “at all times carrying out his duties with dignity, intellect and without partisan political concerns. Justice Stevens has made me and our fellow citizens proud of my three-decade-old decision to appoint him to the Supreme Court.”