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Death of Retired Associate Justice John Paul Stevens

The following is a guest post by Elizabeth Osborne, legal reference librarian. Elizabeth wrote last year on the occasion of the retirement of Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Justice John Paul Stevens gives the keynote speech at the 2011 Wickersham Awards ceremony at the Library of Congress. Photo by Abby Brock.

Justice John Paul Stevens gives the keynote speech at the 2011 Wickersham Awards ceremony at the Library of Congress. Photo by Abby Brock.

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died on Tuesday at the age of 99. When he retired in 2010, he had served for over 34 years and was the third-longest serving justice on the Supreme Court.

Justice Stevens was born in Chicago in 1920, the youngest of four boys. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago in 1941.  During college, Stevens trained in cryptology and served as a codebreaker in the United States Navy from 1942 to 1945 during World War II. He later received a Juris Doctor from Northwestern University School of Law in 1947 and clerked for Associate Justice Wiley B. Rutledge during the 1947-1948 term. After his clerkship, he primarily practiced antitrust law in Chicago until 1970. In 1951, Stevens served as Associate Counsel to the Subcommittee on the Study of Monopoly Power, a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary. He also taught at the law schools at Northwestern and University of Chicago.

In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon appointed Justice Stevens to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  In November 1975, Associate Justice William O. Douglas retired, giving President Ford an opportunity to fill a vacancy.  Justice Stevens was put forward as a moderate conservative whose opinions from the Seventh Circuit reflected discipline and restraint.  On November 28, 1975, President Ford announced his decision to nominate Justice Stevens. The Senate’s unanimous vote for confirmation occurred quickly, and on December 19, 1975, Justice Stevens was sworn in as an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court, at age 56.

In his early years on the Supreme Court, Justice Stevens was considered an independent voice who authored both liberal- and conservative-leaning opinions (Barnhart & Schlickman, pp. 200-201). As his tenure on the court continued, Justice Stevens came to be generally regarded as a justice on the Court’s liberal side (Barnhart & Schlickman, p. 21). Justice Stevens’ views on judicial restraint and impartiality were reflected in some of his opinions. In writing the 1984 majority opinion in Chevron USA v. National Resources Defense Council, Justice Stevens emphasized that, while judges must sometimes resolve competing political interests, they are not part of the political branches of government and must not make decisions based on their own policy preferences.  Sixteen years later, in his dissent in Bush v. Gore, Justice Stevens wrote that that the clearest loser in the 2000 presidential election was the “Nation’s confidence in the judge as the impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

Justice Stevens’ insightfulness, pragmatism, modesty, and grace were highlighted in remarks by President Barack Obama in awarding Justice Stevens with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012:  “Even in his final days on the bench, Justice Stevens insisted he was still ‘learning on the job.’ But in the end, we are the ones who have learned from him.”

Justice Stevens had four children with his first wife, Elizabeth Sheeren. The marriage ended in divorce, and Elizabeth died in 1985.  He was married to his second wife, Maryan Mullholland Simon, for thirty-seven years before she died in 2015.  Two of Justice Stevens’ children predeceased him.  Justice Stevens leaves behind two children, nine grandchildren, and thirteen great-grandchildren.

On June 13, 2011, the Law Library of Congress presented Justice Stevens with the Wickersham Award, given for exceptional public service and dedication to the legal profession. The video from the event is available in the Library of Congress online film and video collections.

Three of Justice Stevens’ books in the Library’s collection are:

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