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John Paul Stevens (1920–2019), retired Supreme Court Justice

AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

Served on the Supreme Court from 1975 until 2010

John Paul Stevens, former U.S. Supreme Court justice, died July 16, 2019, from complications following a stroke, at the age of 99. 

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Stevens was nominated to the high court by President Gerald Ford in 1975 and served over 34 years, retiring in 2010. He was the third-longest-serving justice in the history of the Supreme Court and was the second-oldest justice in history at the time of his retirement. He served with three chief justices, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts. 

He was born April 20, 1920, in Chicago, Illinois, to a wealthy family. His grandfather James W. Stevens was a founder of the Illinois Life Insurance Co., and his father, Ernest J. Stevens, built the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, which is now the Hilton Chicago. 

When debts mounted as a result of the Great Depression, Stevens’ father was indicted and initially convicted of embezzling from the Illinois Life Insurance Co. to keep the Stevens Hotel afloat. The Illinois Supreme Court overturned the conviction, however, because of a lack of evidence. The family ordeal left an impression on the young John Paul Stevens. 

“The criminal justice system can misfire sometimes,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 2007. “It seriously misfired in that case.” 


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Stevens received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago before joining the U.S. Navy one day before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He served in naval intelligence as a cryptographer and was awarded a Bronze Star for his work in helping to break the codes that enabled U.S. pilots to shoot down the plane carrying Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

The targeting of an individual like this informed his later judicial decisions regarding the death penalty. He was often an outspoken critic of the death penalty and tried to narrow the categories of offenders eligible for the death sentence. 

After the war, he enrolled at Northwestern University Law School on the G.I. Bill. He graduated at the top of his class with the highest GPA in school history. Following graduation, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge. 

Stevens returned to Chicago in 1949 and began his practice in antitrust law. He became one of the top antitrust litigators in the nation and was involved in several trials. In 1969, he was named counsel to the Greenberg Commission, which was investigating corruption by the current and former chief justices of the Illinois Supreme Court. His prosecution forced them from office and raised his national profile. 

In 1970, President Richard Nixon named Stevens to the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. In 1975, President Gerald Ford nominated him for the Supreme Court, and the Senate unanimously approved the nomination. 

Over the years, Stevens’ judicial positions became increasingly liberal. By the mid-1980s, he was solidly in the court’s liberal bloc. 

“I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all,” Stevens told The New York Times Magazine. “I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative.” 

However, as the court became increasingly conservative, and as his views on affirmative action and the death penalty changed, Stevens often found himself authoring dissenting opinions. 

After the retirement of Harry Blackmun in 1994, Stevens became the senior associate justice, the second highest authority on the court after the chief justice. When he did not side with the chief justice on a case, which was often on the ideologically divided court, it was his job to assign a justice to write the minority principal dissent or majority opinion. He often used this power skillfully to woo swing-justices such as Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy to join the liberal justices. 

He was also forceful both in writing his dissents and in assigning the writing of the dissenting opinion to his colleagues. His dissent on Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court decision to stop recounting votes in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, offers a prime example. 

“It is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law,” he wrote, “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.” 

Stevens retired from the high court June 29, 2010. He was succeeded by Elena Kagan. 

Birthdate: April 20, 1920 (Who else was born on April 20th?)

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