Thursday 22 August 2019

Obituary: John Paul Stevens

US judge who began his career on the right wing but became a liberalising force in the US Supreme Court

Liberal: John Paul Stevens
Liberal: John Paul Stevens

John Paul Stevens, who has died aged 99, was for 35 years the liberal anchor of the US Supreme Court even though, when appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1975, he was regarded as a right-of-centre Republican.

Stevens's views on issues such as the death penalty and affirmative-action programmes shifted in a more liberal direction but on a scale dwarfed by the rightward shift of the Republican Party and its appointees on the Supreme Court.

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As the old liberal Republicans on the court fell away, they were replaced by increasingly doctrinaire conservatives and for the last 15 years or so before his retirement in 2010, Stevens was the de facto leader of the court's four-strong liberal minority.

But this underplayed his influence, for even in a minority Stevens displayed a gift for consensus building that could often attract a crucial fifth vote to his side of the argument.

His tendency to regard doctrinal debates as a distraction from the application of judgment to real-life problems helped, for example, to win majorities to challenge the George W Bush administration's attempts to waive the rights of detainees held as part of the war against terror.

White-haired, with a bow tie and genial smile, Stevens had an easy-going manner that cloaked a sharp legal brain. Advocate lawyers learnt to fear his gently uttered "May I ask you this?" - a question usually followed by a rapier-like thrust into the very heart of the issue.

US Supreme Court judges are appointed for life and Stevens's decision to retire seems to have been sparked in part by disillusion at the intrusion of partisanship into its decisions.

In Bush v Gore, the case that effectively decided the 2000 presidential election by stopping the Florida recount, Stevens, one of four dissenters, wrote angrily: "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's 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."

The last straw seemed to be Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (2010), which arose after a conservative non-profit organisation sought to broadcast a film critical of Hillary Clinton shortly before the 2008 Democratic primaries, in which the majority on the court held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting corporate spending on political campaign advertising, reversing two decades of established jurisprudence.

He was so appalled he wrote a 90-page dissent. While reading his opinion from the bench, he suffered a small stroke. Three months later, he announced his retirement.

Stevens was born in Chicago on April 20 1920. His grandfather, James Stevens, founded the Illinois Life Insurance Company and owned the LaSalle Hotel, which Stevens's father, Ernest, managed.

In 1927 the family opened the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, the largest hotel in the world at the time. There the young boy met Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, among other celebrities. In 1932 he was in the crowd at Wrigley Field when Babe Ruth hit a legendary home run in the baseball World Series.

But the businesses went bankrupt in the Depression and his father, grandfather and uncle, Raymond Stevens, were all indicted on charges of alleged financial misconduct.

Shortly after, James Stevens had a stroke and was excused from trial. Raymond Stevens committed suicide. In 1933 Ernest was convicted but a year later his conviction was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court, which declared there was not "a scintilla of evidence of any fraud".

The experience is said to have taught Stevens an enduring lesson about the flaws in the justice system.

In the often-quoted case of Chevron v Natural Resources Defense Council (1984), it was he who drafted the majority opinion that when a federal statute is ambiguous, judges should generally defer to the interpretation of the agency charged with administering that statute rather than impose their own views.

With his father making a modest living managing a hotel for someone else, John Paul read English at the University of Chicago.

Commissioned in the Navy on December 6 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he spent most of the war at the US naval base working on breaking Japanese codes, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. He then used the GI Bill to attend Northwestern University Law School, where he completed his degree in two years, graduating first in his class.

As a judge, Stevens acknowledged his debt to Supreme Court Justice Wiley B Rutledge, an old-fashioned common-law judge for whom he worked as a clerk in 1947-48 before spending 22 years in private practice in Chicago, specialising in regulatory and antitrust cases.

In 1969 he was appointed counsel to a special commission investigating bribery allegations against two judges of the Illinois Supreme Court. His investigation ultimately resulted in the men's resignations and brought Stevens into the public domain.

The following year President Richard Nixon appointed him to the federal appeals court in Chicago.

Then, in November 1975, when Ford was looking to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court at a time when memories of Watergate were still fresh, Stevens's reputation as a corruption fighter won him the nomination and he was confirmed by a vote of 98 to 0.

At the Supreme Court, Stevens was known for his insistence on the strict separation of church and state and for his defence of the court's precedents, established in Roe v Wade, defining the right to abortion.

One of his most notable dissenting opinions was District of Columbia v Heller (2008), in which the court interpreted the Second Amendment (which grants Americans the right to bear arms) as protecting an individual's right to possess a firearm, unconnected with service in a militia, for purposes such as self-defence.

After his retirement in 2010 aged 90 as the second-oldest and third-longest-serving justice ever to sit on the court, Stevens took up the cause more vigorously in a 2014 book entitled Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, in which he proposed giving the federal government the power to regulate firearms, limit campaign contributions, ban capital punishment and prohibit election-district gerrymandering.

In 2018 he wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times after a school shooting, calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment - to which President Trump responded in a characteristically uncompromising tweet: "THE SECOND AMENDMENT WILL NEVER BE REPEALED! ... NO WAY."

Stevens, an avid tennis player and golfer, married Elizabeth Sheeren. That was dissolved and in 1979 he married Maryan Simon, who died in 2015. He is survived by two daughters from his first marriage. A son and daughter from his first marriage predeceased him.

John Paul Stevens died on July 16.

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