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Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, Who Led Liberal Wing, Dies at 99



He wrote two particularly notable dissenting opinions toward the end of his career, both in 5-to-4 cases in which the conservative justices prevailed. One was District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), in which the court for the first time interpreted the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right to own a gun.

The other was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which freed corporations from federal limits on campaign spending. The decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation,” Justice Stevens wrote. It was that decision in early 2010, in fact, that prompted his decision to retire. Reading his dissenting opinion from the bench, he stumbled uncharacteristically over his words. He had suffered a small stroke. His retirement that spring opened a second vacancy for President Barack Obama to fill. The president named Elena Kagan, then serving in the administration as solicitor general, to the seat.

Justice Stevens had various health problems over the years, including open-heart surgery to repair a valve in 1974, prostate cancer in 1992 and a blocked coronary artery that was cleared by inserting a stent in 1997. But his energy and athleticism in advanced age continued to amaze those who witnessed it.

He remained an avid tennis player and golfer, shooting a hole in one in his 80s. He was a bronze-level life master at bridge, which he and his wife played competitively. They lived much of the year in an apartment in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with the justice traveling to Washington for court sessions and communicating with his law clerks and colleagues by email the rest of the time.

In retirement he wrote frequently, particularly for The New York Review of Books, and in 2011 he published a memoir, “Five Chiefs.” In 2014 he published “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.” In that book he proposed constitutional amendments that would unambiguously define the federal government’s power to, among other things, regulate firearms, limit campaign contributions, ban capital punishment and prohibit election-district gerrymandering to give one party an advantage. This year, he published “The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years.”

In an interview last November, Justice Stevens said that he first thought of writing the book during a surprise 94th birthday party. By the time he finished writing, the book had grown to 531 pages. “It’s a long story,” Justice Stevens explained.

He also made forays into public debates. In 2018 he wrote an opinion piece, after a school shooting, calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment. Later that year he declared in a speech that Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh was unqualified for the Supreme Court because of his partisan language during a Senate hearing on his fitness for the court over an accusation he sexually assaulted a girl during high school.

Justice Stevens was known around the court for treating others with sensitivity and respect. One former law clerk, Christopher L. Eisgruber, described in a 1993 essay an incident at a party for new clerks: Before Justice Stevens arrived, an older male justice had instructed one of the few female clerks present to serve coffee. When Justice Stevens entered, he quickly grasped the situation, walked up to the young woman and said: “Thank you for taking your turn with the coffee. I think it’s my turn now.” He took over the job.

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