John Paul Stevens, Retired Supreme Court Justice, Dies At 99

Jul 17, 2019
Originally published on July 17, 2019 6:57 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens served on the Supreme Court for more than 30 years. He died of complications following a stroke he suffered on Monday. He was 99 years old. Chief Justice John Roberts announced Stevens' death in a written statement, in which he called him, quote, "a son of the Midwest heartland and a veteran of World War II." Roberts also said, Justice Stevens devoted his long life to public service. His unrelenting commitment to justice has left us a better nation.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is on the line with me now. Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So tell us about John Paul Stevens' long life and career.

TOTENBERG: Well, Stevens was appointed in 1975 by President Ford. He was a Republican, born and bred in Chicago. He was a moderate conservative. And interestingly, President Ford at the time said that he wanted to appoint a justice with no political ties because that was just at the beginning of the Ford administration. It was right after Watergate, the resignation of President Nixon. And Stevens was a well-known, very respected appeals court judge in Chicago, beloved by his colleagues.

He was not on a list of likely contenders prior to this, but he was a choice that Ford was very happy with, spoke with glowingly up until the time of his death. In fact, decades after appointing Stevens, President Ford in 2005 said, you know, you're not usually known by the justices you appoint. Let that not be the case with my presidency, for I am prepared to allow history's judgment of my term in office to rest, if necessary, exclusively on my nomination, thirty years of Justice John Paul Stevens. He has served his nation well, at times (ph) carrying out his judicial duties and always with dignity, intellect and without partisan political concerns.

KING: And Stevens was a guy who evolved, right? He came in as a moderate conservative, but that's not the way he left the court.

TOTENBERG: Well, he would say he didn't evolve, and I actually think he's right. He said that he didn't change. It was the court that changed. He was at the center right of the court when he came on, but as more Republican presidents got the opportunity to name Supreme Court nominees, and as those nominees were more and more conservative, Stevens suddenly found himself at the left end of the court, the most liberal end of the court. He hated that label because he viewed himself as a conservative.

KING: What were some of his notable decisions?

TOTENBERG: He wrote about 400 majority opinions for the court - that's really a lot of majority opinions - almost on every imaginable subject, from property rights to immigration, from abortion to guns to obscenity, from school prayer to campaign finance reform, from the relationship between the federal and state governments to the power of the presidency.

I think the decisions that he'll likely be remembered for are those he wrote about national security and presidential power. He wrote the court's 5-to-3 decision repudiating George W. Bush's assertion of unilateral executive power in setting up war crimes tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And in 2004, in a 6-to-3 decision, he wrote that Guantanamo detainees could challenge their detention in court. And both of those decisions had profound implications for the limits of presidential powers.

To be clear, you know, Noel, Bush was not the first president to feel the sting of Justice Stevens' words. He wrote the Supreme Court's unanimous decision refusing to postpone Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton. Let's take a listen to Stevens summarizing his decision from the bench in 1997, and here he is dismissing the notion that the suit would be a burden on the presidency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN PAUL STEVENS: In the entire history of the Republic, only three sitting presidents have been subjected to suits for their private actions. As for the case at hand, there is nothing in the record to identify any potential harm that might ensue from scheduling the trial promptly after discovery is concluded.

KING: Nina, when did you last talk with John Paul Stevens?

TOTENBERG: I talked to him in April for an interview about one of his three books. It was a memoir. He - the - as I said, he'd written three since leaving office.

KING: Wow.

TOTENBERG: He told me that he was still swimming in the ocean in Florida, that he was playing a wicked game of pingpong. He bragged about it...

KING: (Laughter).

TOTENBERG: ...Saying there was nobody his age that he thought could beat him at the condo where he lived, and he said he traded in his tennis racquet for his pingpong paddle. In that conversation, I was reminded what a kind gentleman he was and what a sweet and understated temperament he had. He sent pictures and a video, which we posted online of him playing pingpong with a much younger neighbor.

KING: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thanks, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.