John Paul Stevens, Supreme Court Justice Who Became Leader of Liberal Wing, Dies at 99


Professor William D. Popkin of the Indiana University School of Law wrote in a 1989 article in The Duke Law Journal that “a special brand of judicial restraint and creativity” marked Justice Stevens’s approach to the law. Justice Stevens was guided by three principles, Professor Popkin wrote: first, “deference to other decision makers,” based on the view that “the court should not decide cases that other institutions can decide at least as well or better”; second, attention to the facts of a case and avoidance of broad generalizations, based on the view that “the court should decide no more than the facts of the case require”; and third, the belief that the court’s highest substantive goal was to “protect individual dignity,” as reflected in his approach to equal protection.

Justice Stevens gave concrete application to his view of a limited role for the courts in one of his most important majority opinions, the 1984 case Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. The court held that when a federal statute is ambiguous, judges should generally defer to the interpretation of the agency charged with administering that statute rather than impose their own views of what Congress must have or should have meant.

“Federal judges — who have no constituency — have a duty to respect legitimate policy choices made by those who do,” Justice Stevens wrote. Although the case remained obscure to the general public, it was a landmark of administrative law, and the term “Chevron deference” became a commonplace in judicial decisions reviewing a seemingly endless array of federal regulations. For the rest of his career, Justice Stevens looked back on the Chevron case with fondness and pride.

But while believing that judicial deference was often appropriate, he also believed that the federal courts must be available when other institutions of government failed to do their jobs. “I firmly believe that the Framers of the Constitution expected and intended the vast open spaces in our charter of government to be filled not only by legislative enactment but also by the common-law process of step-by-step adjudication,” he said in a 1991 speech at the University of Chicago.

That university was his alma mater, and his family had deep roots in Chicago. John Paul Stevens was born there on April 20, 1920, and grew up in a Georgian-style house in the Hyde Park neighborhood. He was the fourth son and youngest child of Ernest James Stevens, a wealthy businessman with interests in real estate and insurance, and the former Elizabeth Street, an English teacher.

In 1909 his grandfather, James W. Stevens, an ambitious and successful financier, had built what was then Chicago’s biggest hotel, the LaSalle. His appetite whetted, the older Stevens then formed the family-owned Stevens Hotel Company to build and operate the world’s biggest hotel, a blocklong, 28-story, 3,000-room behemoth on Michigan Avenue that opened in 1927 as the Stevens Hotel.

Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were among the many celebrities the young John Paul Stevens met there. Those early encounters may have inspired him; he became an avid pilot himself, flying his single-engine Cessna 172 around the Midwest for many years.

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