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Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, third-longest-serving member of Supreme Court, dies at 99

At first a moderate conservative, Stevens emerged as a leader of the court's liberal wing, supporting abortion rights, gay rights and the environment.
Image: Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens
Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in an undated photo.Danny Johnston / AP file

John Paul Stevens, the third-longest-serving associate justice in the history of the Supreme Court, died Tuesday of complications following a stroke, the court announced. Stevens, who retired in 2010, was 99 and had served on the court for 35 years.

Stevens suffered the stroke Monday and died Tuesday at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the court said.

"He brought to our bench an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom and independence," Chief Justice John Roberts said. "His unrelenting commitment to justice has left us a better nation."

President Donald Trump extended the first family's sympathies in a statement.

"A decorated World War II Naval Officer, Justice Stevens was known for his humility, legal acumen and affection for his beloved Chicago Cubs," the statement said. "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."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, recalled in a statement Tuesday night that the first vote he ever cast for a Supreme Court nominee was for Stevens.

Stevens was "a true champion of the law, of decency, and of equal justice for all," Leahy said. "He is already sorely missed. I'll miss my conversations with him and all I learned from him."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called Stevens "a great man and a model jurist: fair, wise, compassionate."

"Our judiciary today needs more like him," Schumer said. "He will be sorely missed."

Stevens was a prominent antitrust lawyer in Chicago when President Richard Nixon successfully nominated him to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1970. In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford nominated Stevens to succeed Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who had retired; the Senate confirmed him to the court on a 98-0 vote.

Stevens, a registered Republican earlier in his life, declined to discuss his politics once he reached the court.

At first, he was perceived to be a moderate conservative — he voted to allow the reinstatement of capital punishment nationwide — but as the court moved right over time, he emerged as a de facto leader of the court's so-called liberal wing, supporting a strict separation of church and state and strong enforcement of laws to protect civil rights and the environment.

Image: John Paul Stevens in 2014
Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens testified during a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing in April 2014. The third longest serving justice in court history, dies at 99 on July 16, 2019.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

He was also a consistent defender of abortion rights and gay rights — five years after his retirement, in 2015, he attended the court's announcement of its ruling to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide in Obergefell v. Hodges.

In 1986, Stevens strongly dissented when the court upheld an anti-sodomy law in Georgia that said gays and lesbians had no protected rights under the Constitution. Stevens continued to condemn that decision, and in 2003, the court overturned it in Lawrence v. Texas.

Stevens always said he didn't change; the court did. In 1990, he notably sided with the court's conservatives on the losing side of its decision to protect the burning of the U.S. flag as a form of protected speech, writing in a dissent that the flag's unique status as a symbol of national unity outweighed "symbolic speech" concerns.

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

In an interview with Time magazine in May, Stevens said he regretted having voted to uphold the death penalty during his first year on the court, saying, "I think I got that wrong."

Stevens continued writing and speaking almost until his death. Last year, he publicly opposed Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the court following Kavanaugh's denial of sexual assault allegations.

Speaking at an event in Boca Raton, Florida, in October, Stevens said that Kavanaugh's "performance in the hearings" had changed his mind and that Kavanaugh would have to recuse himself from so many cases involving allegations of sexual impropriety that he would be, in essence, a part-time justice.

"For the good of the court, it's not healthy to get a new justice that can only do a part-time job," Stevens said.

Stevens was divorced from his first wife, Elizabeth Jane Shereen; his second wife, Maryan Mulholland Simon, died in 2015. He is survived by two daughters, Elizabeth Jane Sesemann and Susan Roberta Mullen, nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.