Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens dead at 99

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Wednesday, July 17, 2019
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Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has died at age 99.

CHICAGO -- Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has died at age 99.

A statement from the U.S. Supreme Court said Stevens died in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, from complications following a stroke he suffered Monday. His daughters were by his side, the statement said.

"On behalf of the Court and retired Justices, I am saddened to report that our colleague Justice John Paul Stevens has passed away. A son of the Midwest heartland and a veteran of World War II, Justice Stevens devoted his long life to public service, including 35 years on the Supreme Court. He brought to our bench an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom, and independence. His unrelenting commitment to justice has left us a better nation. We extend our deepest condolences to his children Elizabeth and Susan, and to his extended family," Chief Justice John Roberts said in the statement.

Stevens was born in Chicago on April 20, 1920. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and his law degree from Northwestern University School of Law. He was also a Navy veteran, serving from 1942 to 1945.

"Justice John Paul Stevens was a brilliant mind who made an indelible mark on the Supreme Court and our country. All of us at Northwestern Law are extraordinary proud to have him as an alum. He was a treasured friend of the Law School and he will be dearly missed," said Kimberly A. Yuracko, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law dean, in a statement.

The White House released a statement, saying, "The President and the First Lady offer their deepest condolences to the family and friends of Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who passed away this evening. A decorated World War II Naval Officer, Justice Stevens was known for his humility, legal acumen, and affection for his beloved Chicago Cubs. His work over the course of nearly 35 years on the Supreme Court will continue to shape the legal framework of our Nation for years to come. His passion for the law and for our country will not soon be forgotten."

Former President Barack Obama said in a statment, "I couldn't have known Justice John Paul Stevens for all of his 99 years, but I'm lucky enough to have known him for some of them. He was a good man, a decent man. And our country is better because of his leadership and his example. For more than 34 years on the bench at the Supreme Court, Justice Stevens heard cases with a level of grace, humility, and fidelity to our highest ideals that we should hope all our public servants strive for. His balancing of legal precedent with the Constitution's call for equal justice and an understanding of Americans' daily lives helped the court - and the country - navigate controversial and defining questions of who we are and who we can be. And in doing so with his signature pragmatism and modesty, he played a pivotal role in carrying forward our founding promise into today. Michelle and I send our warmest condolences to his family and friends, all those who worked with him, and all those whose lives are better because of his legacy."

After working as counsel in the U.S. House of Representatives and for the U.S. Attorney General, he served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit from 1970 to 1975. He was also the Second Vice President of the Chicago Bar Association for 1970.

He was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Gerald Ford in 1975 and began serving on December 19, 1975. He retired from the court on June 20, 2010.

During nearly 35 years on the court, Stevens stood for the freedom and dignity of individuals, be they students or immigrants or prisoners. He acted to limit the death penalty, squelch official prayer in schools, establish gay rights, promote racial equality and preserve legal abortion. He protected the rights of crime suspects and illegal immigrants facing deportation.

He influenced fellow justices to give foreign terrorism suspects held for years at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, naval base the right to plead for their release in U.S. courts.

Stevens served more than twice the average tenure for a justice, and was only the second to mark his 90th birthday on the high court.

He remained an active writer and speaker into his late 90s, surprising some when he came out against Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation following Kavanaugh's angry denial of sexual assault allegations. Stevens wrote an autobiography, "The Making of a Justice: My First 94 Years," that was released just after his 99th birthday in April 2019.

At first considered a centrist, Stevens came to be seen as a lion of liberalism. But he rejected that characterization.

"I don't think of myself as a liberal at all," Stevens told The New York Times in 2007. "I think as part of my general politics, I'm pretty darn conservative."

The way Stevens saw it, he held to the same ground, but the court had shifted steadily to the right over the decades, creating the illusion that he was moving leftward.

His legal reasoning was often described as unpredictable or idiosyncratic, especially in his early years on the court. He was a prolific writer of separate opinions laying out his own thinking, whether he agreed or disagreed with the majority's ruling. Yet Stevens didn't consider his methods novel. He tended toward a case-by-case approach, avoided sweeping judicial philosophies, and stayed mindful of precedent.

The white-haired Stevens, eyes often twinkling behind owlish glasses, was the picture of old-fashioned geniality on the court and off. He took an unusually courteous tone with lawyers arguing their cases, but he was no pushover. After his fellow justices fired off questions, Stevens would politely weigh in. "May I ask a question?" he'd ask gently, then quickly slice to the weakest point of a lawyer's argument.

He voiced only one regret about his Supreme Court career: that he had supported reinstating the death penalty in 1976. More than three decades later, Stevens publicly declared his opposition to capital punishment, saying that years of bad court decisions had overlooked racial bias, favored prosecutors and otherwise undermined his expectation that death sentences could be handed down fairly.

One of his harshest dissents came when the court lifted restrictions on spending by corporations and unions to sway elections. He called the 2010 ruling "a rejection of the common sense of the American people" and a threat to democracy.

As he read parts of that opinion aloud, Stevens' voice wavered uncharacteristically and he repeatedly stumbled over words. For the 90-year-old who'd worried he wouldn't know when to bow out, it was a signal. "That was the day I decided to resign," Stevens said later. He also disclosed in his autobiography that he had suffered a mini-stroke.

A great-grandfather, Stevens eased into an active retirement of writing and speaking, still fit for swimming and tennis in Fort Lauderdale, where he and his second wife, Maryan, kept a home away from Washington.

He is survived by two daughters, Elizabeth and Susan, nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Stevens' first wife, Elizabeth, second wife, Maryan, and two children died before him.

ABC OTV stations contributed to this report