John Paul Stevens, former Supreme Court Justice, dies at 99

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who led the court’s effort to provide legal protections to prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, died on Tuesday. He was 99 years old. 

Raised to the Supreme Court in 1975 by a Republican president, Stevens became an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush’s efforts to create a legal black hole at Guantanamo. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Bush administration argued that enemy combatants held at the off-shore prison were not entitled to access to U.S. courts because they were not U.S. citizens and they were not being held on American soil.

Stevens disagreed. In the 2004 case Rasul v. Bush, he wrote the majority opinion ruling that prisoners at Guantanamo had the right to challenge the legality of their imprisonment before a U.S. court.

Two years later, Stevens wrote the majority opinion in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which ruled that the military commission system set up under Bush violated U.S. and international law. Prisoners at Guantanamo, Stevens held, were protected by a provision in the Geneva Conventions entitling them to “a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized people.” Stevens rejected the Bush administration’s argument that Congress had given the president the authority to convene the military tribunals when it passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Even after he retired in 2010, Stevens remained a vocal critic of the U.S. government’s policy of indefinite detention without charge at Guantanamo. In 2015, he argued that the government should pay reparations to those detainees who had been approved for transfer out of the prison but remained locked up. He compared the reparations proposal to the government’s eventual decision to compensate and apologize to the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated en masse during World War II.

But those Supreme Court victories have proved to be more theoretical than practical. Over the years, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has repeatedly sided with the government against the Guantanamo detainees. And despite a revamping after Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the military commission system remains dysfunctional.

Guantanamo detention was not the only issue on which the Gerald Ford nominee sided with the court’s liberal wing. But Stevens claimed that he never really considered himself to be left-leaning. Instead, he insisted that the Supreme Court became more conservative during his nearly 35 years there.

“I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative,” he told The New York Times in 2007.

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Judge John Paul Stevens through the years
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Judge John Paul Stevens through the years
President Gerald Ford nominated U.S. Circuit Judge, John Paul Stevens, 55, to succeed retired Justice William O. Douglas on the U.s. Supreme Court. Stevens is shown leaving his chambers in the Dirksen Federal Building after speaking very brielfy with newsmen. President Ford called Stevens a member of the 7th U.S. Circuit Bench in Chicago, 'the best qualified person' turned up by a thorough search.
Supreme Court nominee Judge John Paul Stevens, Chicago, introduces members of his family outside their home in suburban Burr Ridge. From the left to the right are: wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Stevens, Judge Stevens, daughters, Elizabeth, 14, Mrs. Kathryn Stevens Jedlicka, 25, and Susan, 12. Stevens has a son John, 26, living in Arizonia.
Supreme Court nominee, Judge John Paul Stevens seated with wife Elizabeth at home.
(Original Caption) Chicago, Il.: Supreme Court Nominee Judge John Paul Stevens at home.
John Paul Stevens (right) takes a seat along side Chief Justice Warren Burger and President Ford during a ceremony at the Supreme Court at which Stevens was sworn in as an associate justice. he replaces retired Justice William O. Douglas.
Official group portrait of Justices William J. Brennan, Jr.; Byron R. White; Harry A. Blackmun; William H. Rehnquist; Potter Stewart; Thurgood Marshall; Lewis F. Powell, Jr.; John Paul Stevens, III; and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in 1976 in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress/Getty Images)
From left to right are Supreme Court Justices Harry Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan, Warren Burger, Sandra O'Connor, Byron White, Lewis Powell, William Rehnquist and John Paul Stevens. (Photo by � CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 28: US Supreme Court Justices pay their respects in front of the casket of former Justice Warren E. Burger who died 25 June, during a prayer ceremony in the Great Hall at the Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC 28 June. From L-R are Justices William Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Mrs. Lewis Powell, wife of a retired justice, Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : US Supreme Court Justices, Antonin Scalia (L), John Paul Stevens (R), Anthony Kennedy (back R) and other members of the Supreme Court arrive for the swearing-in ceremony for US president-elect George W. Bush 20 January 2001 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Bush will be sworn in by US Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to become the 43rd president of the United States. AFP PHOTO/Tim SLOAN (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 5: US Supreme Court Justices (L-R, Seated) Associate Justice Antonin Scalia and Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, (L-R, Standing) Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Associate Justice David H. Souter pose for pictures at the US Supreme Court December 5, 2003 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 06: Associate Justice John Paul Stevens stand on the steps of the Supreme Court as pallbearers carry the casket of Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist into the Supreme Court. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images)
Washington, UNITED STATES: Judge John Roberts (2L) is sworn in as US Supreme Court Chief Justice 29 September 2005 at the White House in Washington, DC by US Supreme Cort Justice John Paul Stevens (R) before his wife Jane (2R) and US President George W. Bush (L). Judge Roberts was confirmed by the US Senate earlier 29 September 2005 by a margin of 78-22. AFP PHOTO/Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 31: (First Row L-R) Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice John Paul Stevens, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, (Second Row L-R) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice David H. Souter, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Stephen G. Breyer pose for photographers at the U.S. Supreme Court October 31, 2005 in Washington DC. Earlier in the day U.S. President George W. Bush nominated judge Samuel Alito to replace Sandra Day O'Connor who is retiring once her replacement is confirmed by the Senate. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 29: U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens poses during the court's official photo session in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009. Stevens was appointed to the court by President Gerald Ford in 1975. (Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - AUGUST 7: Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens arrives for the swearing-in ceremony of his successor, Elena Kagan, at the Supreme Court Building August 7, 2010 in Washington, DC. Kagan, 50, becomes the fourth woman to sit on the high court, and is the first Supreme Court justice in nearly four decades with no previous experience as a judge. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20: (L-R) Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), former Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens and David Barron visit after Barron's nomination hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. Barron was nominated by U.S. President Barack Obama to be U.S. Circuit Judge for the First Circuit. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20: Former Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens (R) attends the nomination hearing for one of his former law clerks, David Barron, before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. A professor of Public Law at Harvard Law School and former Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel in the United States Department of Justice, Barron was nominated by U.S. President Barack Obama to be U.S. Circuit Judge for the First Circuit. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 28: Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens answers a question posed by Brooke Gladstone (not shown), Host and Managing Editor of National Public Radio newsmagazine at the National Constitution Center April 28 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Stevens discussed his new book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 30: Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, shakes hands with Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens during the Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing on 'Dollars and Sense: How Undisclosed Money and Post-McCutcheon Campaign Finance Will Affect 2014 and Beyond' on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 29: From left, Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., talk following Stevens receiving the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens testifies before the Senate Committee on Campaign Finance on Capitol Hill April 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. Stevens is testifying on a hearing entitled 'Dollars and Sense: How Undisclosed Money and Post-McCutcheon Campaign Finance Will Affect 2014 and Beyond'. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens testifies before the Senate Committee on Campaign Finance on Capitol Hill April 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. Stevens is testifying on a hearing entitled 'Dollars and Sense: How Undisclosed Money and Post-McCutcheon Campaign Finance Will Affect 2014 and Beyond'. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
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Nonetheless, it’s true that Stevens moved left on several divisive issues, including capital punishment and affirmative action. In 1976, he voted to uphold the death penalty as a constitutional punishment ― something he later said he regretted. In 1978, Stevens joined with the majority in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke to rule that the use of racial quotas in a medical school admissions program was unconstitutional. But he joined the majority in the 2003 ruling Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan Law School.

Stevens also wrote a strongly worded dissent in Bush v. Gore, the 2000 case that halted a recount in Florida and ultimately handed the presidency to George W. Bush. That decision would undermine confidence in the Supreme Court, Stevens predicted at the time.

“Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today’s decision,” he wrote. “One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

During his final year on the court in 2010, Stevens wrote a lengthy dissenting opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the landmark decision that allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums of money in elections. The majority ruled that limits on political spending infringed on the organizations’ First Amendment rights. Stevens responded that there’s a meaningful distinction between corporations and human beings:

In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.

Stevens was born in 1920 to a wealthy family in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. His father, grandfather and uncle were all arrested on embezzlement charges in 1933. His uncle killed himself before a trial, and his father was convicted and then acquitted on an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. Stevens would later say that his father’s wrongful conviction taught him that the legal system can make mistakes ― something he would keep in mind as a judge.

“It was an example of the system not working properly. And so I think every judge has to keep in mind the possibility that the system has not worked correctly in a particular case,” he said in a “60 Minutes” interview the year he retired.

In 1941, Stevens graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago, where he played tennis ― he continued to play into his 90s ― and worked on the school’s newspaper, The Daily Maroon. He then joined the Navy, serving as a codebreaker and earning a Bronze Star. After the war, he attended Northwestern Law School, where he graduated with the highest GPA in the law school’s history at that time. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge for a year.

Stevens then returned to Chicago to practice antitrust law. He would also teach law at Northwestern and the University of Chicago before President Richard Nixon nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 1970. Stevens served on that court until 1975, when Ford picked him for the Supreme Court.

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Behind the scenes with Supreme Court Justices
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Behind the scenes with Supreme Court Justices
A circular staircase is seen in the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
A marble staircase leads down to an elevator at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
A notice is seen on a lectern, which faces the bench and where lawyers stand to argue, in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas stands in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst SEARCH "SCOTUS" FOR THIS STORY. THE IMAGES SHOULD ONLY BE USED TOGETHER WITH THE STORY - NO STAND-ALONE USES. IMAGE FOR USE AND PUBLICATION ONLY AS PART OF REUTERS SUPREME COURT "Marble, drape and justice: inside the U.S. Supreme Court" PHOTO ESSAY UNTIL AFTER OCTOBER 1, 2017.
Elevator operator Johnnie Bacon, from Washington, smiles at a passenger as he tends one of the elevators in the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
People hold umbrellas on a rainy day at the plaza by the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers a lecture for visiting international attorneys in the West Conference Room at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Daniel Agbleze waters flowers in one of the four inner courtyards at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Visitors look on as attorney John Duggan (R) takes photos with his family, after arguing a case at the U.S. Supreme Court building, on the first day of the court's new term in Washington, U.S. October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Historical and mythical figures of the law are seen in a frieze in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Red velvet drapes hang at the back of the courtroom at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
A clock hangs above the bench in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Name plates mark the spaces reserved for justices' families in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Pencils, a reminder of how to address the court and a seating chart of the justices are seen at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas jokes with his clerks as he describes their decision-making process in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Carved oak walls and arches are seen in the reading area of the library at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer looks for a favourite volume of Proust in his rare book collection in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. June 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts eats a bowl of soup as he sits down to lunch with his team of clerks in his private study at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 15, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas jokes with his clerks as he describes their decision-making process in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst SEARCH "SCOTUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. THE IMAGES SHOULD ONLY BE USED TOGETHER WITH THE STORY - NO STAND-ALONE USES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan walks with her clerks in one of the four inner courtyards at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows the many different collars (jabots) she wears with her robes, in her chambers, at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 17, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A guard stands on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
An anti-abortion protester demonstrates outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on the first day of the court's new term in Washington, October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Television journalists prepare for a news conference on the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building, in Washington, U.S. June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben departs the U.S. Justice Department in traditional morning coat on his way to argue his one-hundredth case before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 27, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor sit on stage as they talk about the role of food in the life of the U.S. Supreme Court at the National Museum of American History in Washington, U.S. June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Reporters wait for the release of the text of the justices' opinions, timed to match the readings of the decisions from the bench, at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Dappled light falls across books shelved in the library at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows the many different collars (jabots) she wears with her robes, in her chambers at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 17, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst SEARCH "SCOTUS" FOR THIS STORY. THE IMAGES SHOULD ONLY BE USED TOGETHER WITH THE STORY - NO STAND-ALONE USES. IMAGE FOR USE AND PUBLICATION ONLY AS PART OF REUTERS SUPREME COURT "Marble, drape and justice: inside the U.S. Supreme Court" PHOTO ESSAY UNTIL AFTER OCTOBER 1, 2017. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers a lecture for visiting international attorneys in the West Conference Room at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst SEARCH "SCOTUS" FOR THIS STORY. THE IMAGES SHOULD ONLY BE USED TOGETHER WITH THE STORY - NO STAND-ALONE USES. IMAGE FOR USE AND PUBLICATION ONLY AS PART OF REUTERS SUPREME COURT "Marble, drape and justice: inside the U.S. Supreme Court" PHOTO ESSAY UNTIL AFTER OCTOBER 1, 2017.
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Ford appointed Stevens at the recommendation of his attorney general, Edward Levi, a former University of Chicago president who knew of Stevens’ evenhanded reputation. Ford sought someone who could be confirmed by a Democratic-controlled Senate. He announced he was nominating Stevens after meeting him only once, at a White House dinner where the two mendid not discuss Stevens’ judicial philosophy. Three decades later, Ford said he was willing to let historians judge his entire presidency on his selection of Stevens.

The judge was confirmed to the high court by a Senate vote of 98-0.

On the court, Stevens had a reputation for being a collegial, courteous consensus-builder ― and for wearing a bowtie. Instead of interrupting lawyers during oral argument to ask questions, as is the custom among other justices, Stevens would say, “May I ask you a question?” A former clerk for Stevens told The New Yorker in 2010 that Stevens often waited until his colleagues had asked questions to see how they were approaching a case and who might be the swing votes in the case. He was frequently described as a “judge’s judge.”

After retiring from the Supreme Court at age 90, Stevens kept an active schedule, appearing frequently in public and authoring several books. In one of those books, he proposed six new amendments to the Constitution involving such issues as gun rights, campaign finance, the death penalty and gerrymandering. In 2014, he suggested adding five words to the Second Amendment so that it would say, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

Stevens is survived by three daughters and multiple grandchildren.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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