John Paul Stevens Biography

Supreme Court Justice (1920–)
John Paul Stevens was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1975 to 2010.

Who Is John Paul Stevens?

John Paul Stevens was born April 20, 1920, in Chicago, Illinois. In 1970 he became a circuit judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals and in 1975 he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although he was expected to serve as a conservative counterbalance to the remnants of the liberal court of Earl Warren, he was an independently minded justice with a moderately liberal position.

Early Life

Born on April 20, 1920, John Paul Stevens is regarded as an important force on the U.S. Supreme Court during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He grew up in Chicago as the youngest of four boys. Stevens came from an affluent family—his grandfather ran the Illinois Life Insurance Company and his father built the opulent Stevens Hotel. Through the hotel, John Paul Stevens met such luminaries as Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh as a child.

In his mid-teens, Stevens saw his family's good fortune turn bad during the Great Depression. His father was convicted of embezzling money to try to keep the hotel afloat. Stevens later told The New York Times that his father was wrongly convicted. This experience with the justice system left a lasting impression.

In 1941, Stevens graduated from the University of Chicago. He soon enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served during World War II. Working as a cryptographer, Stevens earned a Bronze Star for his contributions to the war effort.

Lawyer and Judge

After the war, Stevens enrolled at the Northwestern University School of Law. He graduated at the top of his class two years later. After clerking for Supreme Court Justice Wiley B. Rutledge Jr., Stevens returned to Chicago, where he worked as an antitrust lawyer.

In 1969, Stevens was asked to serve as general counsel on a special commission to investigate corruption allegations regarding members of the Illinois Supreme Court. He received accolades for his work and President Richard Nixon appointed him to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1970.

Supreme Court Justice

After five years on the bench, Stevens was selected for an even greater judicial post. President Gerald Ford nominated him for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1975 to fill a vacancy left by retiring William O. Douglas. While known for his conservative Republican politics, Stevens clearly charted his own course once he joined the court.

Considered a maverick by some, Stevens often supported the rights of individuals in his decisions. He dissented in the 1984 case of Hudson v. Palmer, which found that the Fourth Amendment did not cover a prisoner's cell and its contents. In his opinion, Stevens wrote that, "Measured by the conditions that prevail in a free society, neither the possessions nor the slight residuum of privacy that a prison inmate can retain in his cell, can have more than the most minimal value. From the standpoint of the prisoner, however, that trivial residuum may mark the difference between slavery and humanity."

Stevens has also supported abortion rights over the years. In an interview with The New York Times, he explained that the choice to have an abortion should be in the hands of the woman, not judges. Stevens thought it was "better to have her decide these questions with her own counselors and guidance than to have judges and legislators deciding something like this." During his long tenure on the court, Stevens became a strong opponent of the death penalty. He announced in 2008 that he thought that capital punishment was, in fact, unconstitutional.

Dissents in 'Bush v. Gore'

As a member of the court, Stevens influenced the world of politics as well. In 1997, he wrote the majority opinion that allowed lawyers for Paula Jones to depose President Bill Clinton for her lawsuit against him while he was still in office. And Stevens objected to the court's ruling in the 2000 election-deciding case of Bush v. Gore. The court overturned the Florida Supreme Court's decision to order a recount of all of the state's ballots. Joined by David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, Stevens wrote that, "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. I respectfully dissent."

Stevens retired from the court in June 2010 at the age of 90. To honor him on his last day in court, many of his colleagues wore bowties—the retiring justice's neckwear of choice. 

Proving he still possessed a sharp mind even as he pushed into his late 90s, Stevens in March 2018 penned a New York Times op-ed about the need to repeal the Second Amendment. Reflecting on the recent March for Our Lives protests, and the NRA's successful campaign to curtail federal regulation of firearms, he argued that a full repeal was the best way to stem the immense influence of the NRA and protect children.

The piece drew a fiery response on Twitter from the president, who declared that the Second Amendment would never be repealed, and spun the situation as a call to arms for Republicans who hoped to retain the majority in the Supreme Court.

Stevens has three daughters from his first marriage to Elizabeth Jane Sheeren. The couple also had a son who died in 1996. In 1979, Stevens married his second wife Maryan Mulholland Simon.

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