R.I.P. John Paul Stevens, 1920-2019

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, 2005 (U.S. Supreme Court official photo)

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, 2005 (U.S. Supreme Court official photo)

Professor Stevens, in WC’s Appellate Law and Procedure class back in law school, told us, “Federal judges have no constituency, and thus have a duty to respect the legitimate policy choices made by those who do.” At the time Professor Stevens was a judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and his course was taught out of gratitude to Northwestern University, the law school he had attended.

He was pretty much a rockstar among law students. He had served as general counsel to a special commission appointed to investigate charges of bribery against to members of the Illinois Supreme Court, including the Chief Justice. During the very worst days of the Daly Machine, Stevens, antitrust lawyer, led and forced through to conclusion a thorough investigation that led to the resignations of two members of the Illinois Supreme Court1. In a little over six weeks. Working for free. And he was a Northwestern graduate.

It was only a few months after WC graduated that Judge Stevens was appointed – by a unanimous 98-0 vote of the U.S. Senate – to the U.S. Supreme Court. He held that seat for some 35 years, the third longest term in the history of the SCOTUS.2

Over the course of his tenure, the SCOTUS shifted from the left-leaning remnants of the Warren Court to the far right-leaning Roberts court. Justice Stevens was not a liberal – he was a lifelong Republican – but over the thirty-five years he served the center of the court shifted so far that, at the end, he was one of the liberal, or at least reasonable, voice remaining. To some extent, Stevens’ views evolved, too.

WC’s deep admiration for Justice Stevens is, in part, because of shared views. Stevens came to regard the death penalty as indefensible and unconstitutionally cruel and unusual in application. He refused to deny prisoners at Guantanamo Bay their rights as defendants. He rejected gerrymandering in all its forms. He thought Citizens United – the case that led to his retirement was utterly wrong and poisonous to our democracy, a position that has proven to be exactly correct. He regarded the current interpretation of the Second Amendment as completely wrong. And he wrote in dissent in Bush v. Gore, “the identity of the loser is perfectly clear: the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” He was an unabashed federalist, insisting upon the application of the Bill of Rights to all of the states.

Stevens was the senior most associate for the last 20 years of his tenure. That meant that when the Chief Justice was not in the majority and Stevens was, Stevens assigned the justice to write the opinion. That gave him out-sized influence in a number of critical cases.

He was also a gentleman, a demon table tennis player, and a life-long Cubs fan. And a damned fine professor.

After his retirement from the court, he advocated for repeal of the Second Amendment, for a constitutional amendment reversing Citizens United and against the appointment of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the SCOTUS. What’s not to like?

R.I.P. Justice John Paul Stevens, and congratulations on a superb career and a life lived well.



  1. There’s a pretty good book on the Chicago Center Bank scandal: Illinois Justice: The Scandal of 1969 and the Rise of John Paul Stevens by Kenneth A. Manaster. 
  2.  Roe v. Wade was decided three years before Justice Stevens was appointed. Yet during Stevens’ confirmation hearing, he was not asked one question, not one, on his position on abortion. From nomination to confirmation vote was just 19 days; his hearing lasted three days. Different times. 

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