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Justice Stevens to Retire

jpstevensWASHINGTON - Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, an unassuming Chicagoan in bowties who became a shrewd strategist and liberal leader of the modern Supreme Court, announced his retirement Friday morning. He has served nearly 35 years and is about to turn 90.

In many ways, Stevens' departure may be more significant for the Supreme Court than fellow liberal David Souter's retirement last year. Stevens, more than any other justice on the left, has taken the lead to craft coalitions that include swing-vote conservatives, allowing liberals to prevail in some key cases that limited the death penalty and expanded gay rights even as the court turned increasingly to the right.

"Having concluded that it would be in the best interests of the Court to have my successor appointed and confirmed well in advance of the commencement of the Court's next Term, I shall retire from regular active service as an Associate Justice," Stevens wrote to President Obama Friday morning. He will retire at the end of the court's term, which typically concludes in late June.

Stevens will become the third-longest-serving justice in May. He essentially had two chapters on the bench: the first as a judicial maverick who fell between opposing ideological camps and often penned solo dissenting opinions; the second, beginning in the mid-1990s, as the senior member of the liberal wing who took the lead on a changing court to limit the conservative judicial revolution.

A silver-haired, self-effacing man, Stevens has worked effectively with swing votes Sandra Day O'Connor, who served until 2006, and Anthony Kennedy, the justice currently in the middle of an ideologically split court.

"He has been the leader of the opposition," says Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative who regularly sparred with Stevens. He adds that as Stevens worked with centrist justices, he did not cajole in the manner of legendary dealmaker Justice William Brennan, who served from 1956 to 1990. "Bill Brennan used to go around and sit down and talk to people. John did it quite rarely. (Instead) it was done through the normal process of written memos. He would introduce or propose a compromise."

Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement Friday that Stevens "has earned the gratitude and admiration of the American people for his nearly 40 years of distinguished service to the Judiciary, including more than 34 years on the Supreme Court. He has enriched the lives of everyone at the Court through his intellect, independence, and warm grace."

Harvard University law professor Richard Fallon called Stevens "a wily practitioner of coalition politics" who pulled together liberal majorities in a generally conservative era.

Pamela Harris, director of Georgetown University's Supreme Court Institute, added, "He is an extremely shrewd and analytically precise lawyer. At the same time, his opinions are inflected with what's important to him: that people be treated with equal respect and equal dignity by their government."

Harris, a former law clerk to Stevens, added, "it was as if the man met his moment."

Stevens, the last World War II veteran on the court, was an architect of major decisions rejecting the Bush administration's counterterrorism strategy on detainees' access to U.S. courts after the Sept. 11 attacks and U.S. military retaliation in Afghanistan. Stevens wrote the 2004 case that said detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had a right under federal law to bring their cases before U.S. judges. He later worked with key justice Kennedy to reinforce that decision and reject Bush administration efforts to keep foreign detainees from getting into court.

In 2003, he teamed with O'Connor for what would become the court's last big ruling upholding federal campaign finance regulations, and in January he vigorously dissented from a major decision lifting restrictions on corporate spending in elections. He concluded that dissent in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission with a strong indictment: "While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."

Stevens has been an active participant during oral arguments, appearing in good health despite his age. In January, however, when he read his dissent from the bench, his voice was weary and dispirited. He sounded especially dismayed about the turn in the court's campaign finance law

In an interview March 31, he said he was wrestling with the retirement decision. "I still like the job. There's no doubt about it. That's why I still keep my options open. I still have to decide for the future."

He suggested to USA TODAY last fall that he had stayed on the court into his 80s out of concern for its ideological turn to the right.

"The make up of the court has changed dramatically," he observed. He expressed his frustration in a 2007 dissenting opinion when a 5-4 conservative majority stopped schools in Louisville and Seattle from considering race in student assignments to spur integration.

Stevens contended the rule set back school desegregation, writing: "It is my firm conviction that no member of the court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today's decision."

In the March interview, Stevens added, "As you can tell from my dissents, there are a lot of cases that I'm disappointed with and I think they make mistakes. But you learn to live with it."

A changing courtJustice Stevens' tenure coincided with a three-decade ideological transformation of the Supreme Court. Virtually all successive justices moved the bench to the right.

Appointed by President Ford, Stevens first secured a place at the center of a court dominated by liberal Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun. In the early years, Stevens often found himself writing lone concurring or dissenting opinions, finding a home on neither the right nor left.

One of his most important early decisions came in 1978, upholding federal regulatory power to prohibit offensive broadcast material during certain hours. The case began when a New York radio station aired comedian George Carlin's "seven dirty words" monologue. The father of a young boy who heard the midday monologue complained to the FCC, and the agency sanctioned the Pacifica Foundation station.

Writing for a five-justice majority, Stevens referred to radio's "uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans" and said, "words that are commonplace in one setting are shocking in another." That decision did not deal with the one-time utterance of an expletive, and three decades later Stevens dissented when a more conservative majority said the FCC also could ban the one-time use of an expletive on the air.

Through the years, as President Reagan, the first President Bush, and then the second President Bush added more conservative justices, Stevens found himself firmly on the left of the bench. He became the leader of the liberal wing in 1994 when Justice Blackmun retired.

In the last 15 years, he became a more vigorous supporter of affirmative action and a strong critic of the conservatives' effort to diminish the federal government's power to become involved in state affairs. He dissented repeatedly as the majority struck down federal laws, such as, in 1995, a measure that banned guns near local schools.

"Justice Stevens certainly did have larger principles, including a view of a strong national government and strong nation, coming from his experiences in war," says Emory University law professor Robert Schapiro, a former Stevens law clerk. Yet he adds Stevens tended to look at each case on its individual merits rather than try to apply a sweeping judicial philosophy. "He was definitely the kind of judge who thought: 'You get each case right.' (hellip) He became influential one case at a time."

As the most senior among the liberal justices, Stevens had the power to assign the opinion for the majority when the left prevailed. He could have claimed the opinion for himself in major cases, yet he often relinquished it to keep a fragile coalition together by assigning it to the fifth vote or an otherwise crucial justice.

Stevens wrote the court's 2002 opinion ruling the executions of mentally retarded defendants unconstitutional. Three years later, though, he assigned Kennedy the majority opinion banning the execution of juveniles.

In 2007, Stevens concluded the death penalty should be abolished, separating himself from the rest of his colleagues at the time, all of whom supported capital punishment. "A penalty with such negligible returns to the state (is) patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment," he wrote.

Scalia denounced Stevens' position. "This (hellip) conclusion is insupportable as an interpretation of the Constitution, which generally leaves it to democratically elected legislatures rather than courts to decide what makes significant contribution to social or public purposes," Scalia wrote.

One of Stevens' most notable writings in a face-off with the conservative wing came in the 2000 case of Bush v. Gore. He dissented in the ruling that stopped the Florida recounts in the presidential election and put George W. Bush in the White House. "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the looser is perfectly clear," Stevens wrote. "It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."

'It's a wonderful job

With Stevens' departure, the next most senior justice on the left is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed by Clinton in 1993. Ginsburg, 77, has twice survived serious battles with cancer and could retire in upcoming years. After Ginsburg, the next most senior justice would be Stephen Breyer, a 1994 Clinton appointee who is now 71.

"When someone leaves and another person comes on, the dynamics really change," Georgetown's Harris says. "There's not another justice on the court who has the same depth and length of experience, who has built up over time the same relationships, and who has the same interest in playing that leadership role on the court."

Stevens was born on April 20, 1920, the youngest of four sons of a prominent Chicago family. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1941, then joined the Navy during World War II and earned the Bronze Star.

His military service sometimes emerged in his decisions. In the 1989 Texas v. Johnson, when the mostly liberal majority ruled that the First Amendment guarantee of free expression bars laws against flag desecration at a peaceful demonstration, Stevens dissented. He said the American flag was distinct in representing "ideas worth fighting for" and called it "more than a proud symbol of the courage, the determination, and the gifts of nature that transformed 13 fledgling colonies into a world power."

After his time in the Navy, Stevens returned to Chicago and attended Northwestern University law school. He was a law clerk to then-Justice Wiley Rutledge and also worked in a private firm that specialized in antitrust issues.

In 1969, he served on a special public commission that investigated two Illinois Supreme Court judges accused of taking a bribe. The episode, which forced their resignations, shaped Stevens' approach to the law and likely gained him the national attention that led to court appointments, he told USA TODAY in 2001.

President Nixon named Stevens to the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 1970. Five years later, Ford was looking for a successor to Justice William Douglas, who was retiring. Attorney General Edward Levi, who knew Stevens from Chicago legal circles, put him at the top of the short list, describing him as a "judge of the first rank" and "moderate conservative in his approach."

Stevens was a Republican, yet he had not been active in party politics. He also faced a relatively mild grilling from senators in the last of the non-televised Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. He was confirmed by the Senate 98-0 and took his judicial oath Dec. 19, 1975.

During his tenure of more than three decades, Stevens maintained an active life outside the court. He used to fly his own airplane and still plays regular tennis and golf. He was a national champion bridge player. When he is at his Florida home, he swims every day in the ocean.

He said in March that he had not contemplated what other pursuits he might take up in retirement: "But usually I have been able to find things to do that are interesting and stimulating."

Looking back at his three-and-a-half decades, Stevens said, "There are areas where I have to say I am not happy with the way the law developed. In other things, I am happy about it. It's a wonderful job. You can't deny that."

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