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Stevens turns 90; only Holmes was older

His tenure on the Supreme Court touched four decades, following service in a war that defined his generation and a childhood in a prominent family. He celebrated his 90th birthday among court colleagues at least a dozen years younger.
/ Source: The Associated Press

His tenure on the Supreme Court touched four decades, following service in a war that defined his generation and a childhood in a prominent family. He celebrated his 90th birthday among court colleagues at least a dozen years younger.

Until Tuesday, Oliver Wendell Holmes was the only American who fit that description. Now, John Paul Stevens becomes the second Supreme Court justice to mark his 90th birthday on the court.

Stevens' recent announcement that he will retire this summer, a few months after turning 90, means Holmes will remain the court's oldest justice. He retired two months shy of his 91st birthday in 1932.

Holmes, whose bushy mustache was his most striking physical feature, was born during the short presidency of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president. He died with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president, in the White House. His grandmother remembered fleeing Boston ahead of the advancing British at the start of the Revolutionary War.

Stevens, known for his sporty bow ties, was born near the end of the wartime presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the nation's 28th president. He's leaving to allow his successor to be nominated by Barack Obama, the 44th.

There are similarities between the two justices that extend well beyond their longevity.

Holmes grew up in Boston amid the day's leading intellectuals. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were visitors to the family home.

Stevens was born into a family that owned a large hotel in Chicago that attracted celebrities as guests. As a child, he made the acquaintance of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh.

Both men were decorated war veterans: Stevens spent World War II in naval intelligence, while Holmes was wounded three times in the Civil War.

Their appointments to the court had little to do with their political ideology, said G. Edward White, a University of Virginia law professor and Holmes biographer. "Both Holmes and Stevens are not identified in any easy way with national politics," White said.

One significant difference White pointed out is that Stevens has used his seniority on the court to great effect, leading the court's liberals by attracting votes from more conservative justices on key issues over the past 15 years.

"Holmes was quite detached from the politics of the court," White said. "I've never found any evidence that Holmes used position as senior associate justice, which he was for quite a while, in a strategic fashion."

Another difference between them, perhaps, is the manner of their retirements.

Stevens, who is among the longest-serving as well as oldest justices, has not said anything in public to explain the timing of his departure after more than 34 years as a justice.

Yet in stepping down before breaking Holmes' record or eclipsing William O. Douglas' 36 years as a justice, Stevens is in a sense ensuring that he will be remembered more for what he did on the court than how long he stayed.

"Otherwise, it detracts from what you want people to think about, your jurisprudence," said Artemus Ward of Northern Illinois University, author of a book on Supreme Court retirements.

It's not always the case that justices relinquish the power and perks that come with the lifetime appointment.

Douglas, whom Stevens replaced, had a hard time letting go. After suffering a debilitating stroke, he remained on the court until his colleagues not-so-subtly suggested he had to quit. Even after Stevens was confirmed as his successor, Douglas sought to have opinions issued in his name.

"Stevens has the personal recollection of people not departing when they should," Ward said.

Unlike Stevens, who appears to be leaving on his own terms, Holmes also was essentially asked to retire by the other justices.

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes paid a visit to Holmes at his home in Washington in January 1932 after it had become clear that Holmes was having trouble on the job. Hughes later reported that Holmes put up no opposition and agreed to retire immediately.

Just 10 months earlier, the nation made a fuss of Holmes' 90th, unsurprising because fewer people lived so long 80 years ago. The American Bar Association gave him a gold medal, and the country's leading legal lights organized a nationwide radio broadcast in his honor. At the program's end, Holmes himself said a few words, the first he ever uttered into a microphone.

"Death plucks my ear and says, 'Live — I am coming,'" he concluded, quoting the ancient Roman poet Virgil to explain why he continued to work into his 90s.