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Portrait of John Paul Stevens
Portrait of John Paul Stevens.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
John Paul Stevens

b. April 20, 1920, Chicago, IL

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Son of a businessman who made his fortune in Chicago real estate, John Paul Stevens grew up near the University of Chicago and attended the laboratory high school of the university. He went to the University of Chicago, graduating in 1941, Phi Beta Kappa, and enlisted in the navy during World War II, working in a unit that decrypted enemy code. After the war he attended Northwestern University Law School, was editor-in-chief of the law review, and graduated first in his class in 1947, with the highest grades in the school's history. He clerked with Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge from 1947 to 1948 and then entered private practice with a Chicago firm and specialized in litigation and antitrust law. In 1952 he founded his own firm and continued in private practice throughout the 1950s while teaching at the law schools of Northwestern and the University of Chicago.

In 1970 President Richard Nixon appointed Stevens to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, where he became known for his legal scholarship and the meticulous and lucid style of his opinions. When the liberal justice William O. Douglas retired in 1975, President Gerald Ford appointed Stevens to fill Douglas's seat. Viewed as a moderate and a "judge's judge," he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

Stevens quickly broke from the tradition that new justices should refrain from issuing their own opinions. During the 1976-1977 term he wrote more individual opinions than any other justice on the Court: 17 supporting the majority and 27 dissenting. He proved to be an independent-minded pragmatist, and this has distinguished him from others on the Court who espouse judicial or political ideologies. Because presidents generally appoint justices sympathetic to their political goals, Stevens is that rarity: a justice without a social agenda.

Quiet and mild mannered, Stevens cannot be grouped with either the Court's judicial conservatives or its judicial liberals. His approach to each case involves a careful assessment of the facts and research into their social context. His decisions take into account current values as well as societal interests. During the 1970s and early 1980s his place on the Court was that of a moderate, and he voted to reinstate capital punishment (Gregg v. Georgia [1976]) and to oppose affirmative action policies in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). The Court's swing to the right under Chief Justice William Rehnquist, however, aligned him with its "liberal" justices. He has tended to support abortion rights and gay rights, to soften his opposition to affirmative action, and to embrace a libertarian view toward obscenity and freedom of speech. His opinions have not been greatly influential, however, and he has been criticized for focusing on minutiae and failing to articulate larger principles that can serve to guide the legal system and the nation.

John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

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