John Paul Stevens, a former leader of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing, died Tuesday at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 99 years old.
According to an announcement from the Supreme Court, the cause was complications from a stroke he suffered Monday.
President Richard Nixon nominated Stevens to the court in 1975, and he was the third-longest serving justice on the court before he retired in 2010. Previously a Chicago antitrust lawyer and a registered Republican, Stevens was initially seen as a moderate conservative.
However, he disappointed the right by emerging as a powerful liberal voice on the bench. The author of numerous landmark rulings and influential dissents, Stevens worked to bolster the federal government and abortion rights while fighting against the death penalty and gun rights.
Last March, with the culture wars inflamed by the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Stevens wrote a New York Times urging the repeal of the Second Amendment. Noting that he had dissented from the court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which found an individual right to bear arms, he endorsed a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.
“[Getting] rid of the Second Amendment would be simple and would do more to weaken the N.R.A.’s ability to stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation than any other available option,” Stevens said.
He added: “It would make our schoolchildren safer than they have been since 2008 and honor the memories of the many, indeed far too many, victims of recent gun violence.”
John Paul Stevens dies for the right
Early in his tenure on the court, Stevens – who was known for his bow ties and judicial temperament – reauthorized the death penalty and voted to strike down strict affirmative-action plans in university admissions and government contracting.
In 1989, the decorated Navy veteran of World War II joined other conservative-leaning justices in dissenting from a ruling that recognized a First Amendment right to burn the American flag.
Over time, though, Stevens began to align with his liberal colleagues. He fought to limit the death penalty and warmed to affirmative action. He also championed abortion rights and gay rights, strict separation of church and state, and federal and administrative power, including aggressive enforcement of civil rights and environmental laws.
In 1984’s Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Stevens set forth the principle that courts should defer to federal agencies’ reasonable interpretation of the law. He thereby established “Chevron deference,” a principle beloved by bureaucrats and despised by conservatives.
In 2000, Stevens dissented on Bush v. Gore, the 2000 election case that helped George W. Bush win the presidency. He lamented that the decision would “lend credence to the most cynical appraisal of the work of judges throughout the land.”
Despite his clear ideological drift, Stevens like to claim that his views had remained the same while the court and the country moved rightward.
“I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all,” he told the Times in an interview in 2007. “I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative.”
After his retirement from the Supreme Court, Stevens launched a second career as a writer and speaker. Nearly up until his death, he publicly advocated for liberal positions on some of the most contentious issues in American life.
Last October, he announced that he opposed Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the court following the then-nominee’s denial of sexual assault allegations from his youth.
Speaking at an event in Boca Raton, Florida, Stevens said that Kavanaugh’s “performance in the hearings” had changed his mind. He further argued that the judge would have to recuse himself from too many cases involving sexual impropriety.
“For the good of the court, it’s not healthy to get a new justice that can only do a part-time job,” Stevens said.
Stevens’ call to nix the Second Amendment was just one of a list of constitutional changes Stevens proposed based on his dissenting opinions. Others included regulations on campaign finance and a ban on capital punishment.
Stevens’ death comes as the court’s conservative-leaning wing is ascendant. In addition to Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump saw Justice Neil Gorsuch confirmed in 2017, giving the right side of the bench a relatively youthful 5-4 majority.
Meanwhile, the two oldest members of the court are part of the liberal minority. Stephen Breyer is 80 years old, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 86. Last December, she underwent the latest in a series of cancer treatments, having two tumors removed from her lung.
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