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Did the Supreme Court change or did John Paul Stevens?

John Paul Stevens, shown at his Senate confirmation hearings in 1975, was unanimously confirmed weeks after his nomination. 

Associated Press

John Paul Stevens, shown at his Senate confirmation hearings in 1975, was unanimously confirmed weeks after his nomination. 

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court career of John Paul Stevens could not have been easily predicted in 1975, when he arrived as a Midwestern Republican with a background in corporate and antitrust law.

A World War II veteran, he wanted no part of defending pornography as a free speech issue. "Few of us would march our sons and daughters off to war to preserve the citizen's right to see … sexually explicit 'adult' movies," he wrote in his first major opinion. Having replaced liberal Justice William Douglas, Stevens also cast a key vote in his first year to restore the death penalty after a four-year ban.

But since the mid 1990s, Stevens, who on Friday announced his retirement, has been the leader of the court's liberal wing and its strongest voice for progressive causes. He has supported a strict separation of church and state and vigorous enforcement of laws to protect civil rights and the environment.

He has championed clear limits on the "influence of big money" in American politics. "Money is not speech," he said, but property subject to regulation. And two years ago, he called for an end to "state-sanctioned killing," insisting the "real risk of error" made the death penalty no longer acceptable.

So what changed? Did the 89-year-old Stevens become more liberal over three decades, or did Stevens hold to the center while the high court shifted right in response to appointments by Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush?

As Stevens saw it, he held to the center. On abortion, prayer in schools and campaign spending, he tried to maintain the law as it was when he joined the court. For example, he voted to uphold state laws that required young girls to have their parents' consent to get an abortion. But when Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia pressed to overturn the right to abortion entirely, Stevens became a steady defender of Roe vs. Wade, the decision that established that right.

When Rehnquist and Scalia favored a more public role for religion, Stevens stood for a strict separation of church and state, opposing moves to permit prayers in public schools or public aid for parochial schools.

In January's ruling giving corporations a free-speech right to spend unlimited sums on elections, Stevens dissented, defending the long-standing power of Congress to restrict corporate and union money in campaigns. In these and other votes, his "liberal" stands amounted to defending the status quo.

Stevens has been "the most independently minded and intellectually creative member of the high court, a man of great integrity," said James Simon, former dean of the New York Law School. "The benefit is that he always offered a fresh perspective. But a downside, perhaps, is that he didn't have much of a following."

President Gerald Ford chose Stevens because of his reputation as a highly capable and nonpartisan judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago. And in his early years, he fit the profile of an independent-minded, middle-of-the-road judge.

But as the court shifted toward the right in the late 1980s and early 1990s, by default he became the senior voice on the liberal side after the court's most prominent liberals — Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun — retired between 1990 and 1994.

The departure of Stevens will mark the passing of a generation. He sports bright bow ties in the courtroom and treats the lawyers with an old-fashioned sense of courtesy. He is not only the last of the justices to have served in World War II but also is alone among the nine in having served on active duty in the military.

He is also the last of the justices to have joined the court before the Senate confirmation hearings became televised. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in December 1975, less than three weeks after his nomination.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Did the Supreme Court change or did John Paul Stevens? 04/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 9, 2010 11:55pm]

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