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John Paul Stevens


John Paul Stevens, appointed to the Supreme Court in 1975, is the oldest member of the current Court and, behind Chief Justice Rehnquist, the second-longest serving. Nominated by Republican President Gerald Ford in the wake of the Watergate scandal to help re-establish public confidence in government, Stevens was widely viewed as a moderate, concerned more with the details of a given case than a broad and predictable judicial philosophy. As the Court moved to the right during the Reagan and Bush administrations, however, Stevens began to ally more often with the liberal bloc. He has voted to uphold Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to abortion, for example, and has resisted the Federalism doctrine that is one of the most notable characteristics of the Rehnquist Court.

As the senior member of the liberal wing, Stevens often controls the assignment of opinions in closely-decided cases. Still, his influence remains uncertain. Many observers point to his quirky and unconventional jurisprudence as a constraint on his ability to lead the Court. They argue that Stevens' individualistic personality keeps him permanently outside the mainstream of the Court and that he lacks the characteristics of a coalition-builder. Nevertheless, in light of the Court's close ideological split and Stevens remarkable intelligence and experience, it would be difficult to discount his role in determining the Court's direction.

John Paul Stevens was born on April 20, 1920, in Chicago, Illinois, as the youngest of Ernest and Elizabeth Stevens' four sons. Stevens grew up in a wealthy family. His father made a fortune in the insurance and hotel business and owned the Stevens Hotel, which has since become the Chicago Hilton. The Stevens family lived near the University of Chicago campus and sent their sons to the university's laboratory school for preparatory education. Stevens attended college at the University of Chicago, following his father's footsteps, and joined his father's fraternity. He participated in a wide variety of campus activities and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1941. A year after his graduation, Stevens married Elizabeth Sheeren, with whom he had a son and three daughters.

Stevens enlisted in the Navy during World War II. In his position as part of a Navy code-breaking team, Stevens earned the Bronze Star. Following the war, he again followed his father's path and entered Northwestern University Law School. Stevens distinguished himself at Northwestern by becoming editor-in-chief of the school's law review and graduating with the highest grades in the law school's history. After graduating, he served a term as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge.

Stevens joined a prominent law firm in Chicago specializing in antitrust law and creating a reputation as a talented antitrust lawyer. He left the firm to start his own practice after three years and also began teaching law at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago law schools. His abilities in antitrust laws earned him positions with various special counsels to the House of Representatives and the U.S. Attorney General's office.

Stevens became known as a fair-minded and able counsel. Richard Nixon appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 1970. On the appeals court, Stevens continued to establish his reputation as a notable legal thinker. When Justice William Douglas stepped down from the Court in 1975. Attorney General Edward Levi proposed Stevens' appointment to the High Court. President Gerald Ford acted on Levi's advice and the Senate confirmed Stevens' appointment without controversy.

As a justice, Stevens has avoided simple conservative or liberal labels, making him one of the least predictable justices sitting today. Nevertheless, his approach to judicial decision-making can be summarized in a general sense: He will typically examine the facts of each case carefully and on their own merits, and seeks to defer to the judgments of others who he feels are better suited to decide (such as administrators or trial court judges who hear testimony directly). He has demonstrated considerable judicial restraint and deference to the Congress.

Stevens divorced his first wife in 1979 and married Maryann Simon a year later. He remains something of a wildcard in the political balance of the Court.

(By Ben Snyder. Posted July 26, 2005.)

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