Northwestern alumnus John Paul Stevens dies at 99


Greg Lovett/Palm Beach Post/TNS

Justice John Paul Stevens. The former Supreme Court Justice and Northwestern alumnus died Tuesday from stroke complications.

Sophia Scanlan, Copy Chief

Former Supreme Court Justice and Northwestern alumnus John Paul Stevens died from stroke complications Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 99.

Stevens (School of Law ’47), who retired in 2010 after 35 years on the Court, was the third-longest serving justice in American history, behind Stephen J. Field and Stevens’ own predecessor William O. Douglas.

Though originally a Republican, the former Wildcat became a leader among the Court’s liberals, championing issues like legal abortion and writing majorities for decisions like Atkins v. Virginia, which declared executing the mentally disabled unconstitutional.

“He fought against a rigid, narrow and manipulative reading of the Constitution, in favor of a common-sense mode of textual interpretation that viewed constitutional issues through the lens of modern realities, as well as historical context,” School of Law Prof. Martin Redish said in a release.

Before all his decades in Washington, however, Stevens got his start in Chicago.

Born on the South Side in 1920, the lifelong Cubs fan grew up in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago, the school from which he’d earn a bachelor’s degree in English in 1941. Stevens enlisted in the Navy after his collegiate years, beginning just a day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

After working as an intelligence officer, Stevens left the Navy to follow in the footsteps of his lawyer brothers — and with the help of the G.I. Bill, he ended up at the School of Law.

At Northwestern, Stevens earned high grades, edited the law review and finished first in his class. W. Willard Wirtz — a former Northwestern law professor who would become the Secretary of Labor — said Stevens was “undoubtedly the most admired, and at the same time, the best liked man in school.”

Wirtz, in fact, was the one who pushed Justice Wiley Rutledge to hire Stevens as a law clerk in 1947.

After that year of clerking, the Chicago native returned to his home city and worked as an antitrust lawyer, then partner at his own firm, eventually becoming a judge on the Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. President Gerald Ford appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1975.

Stevens returned to the School of Law in 2011 to give the convocation address, and a year later, he donated his Supreme Court chair to it.

“Justice John Paul Stevens was a brilliant mind who made an indelible mark on the Supreme Court and our country,” School of Law dean Kimberly Yuracko said in a release. “He was a treasured friend of the Law School and he will be dearly missed.”

This story was updated to include the opinions of Northwestern professors Martin Redish and Kimberly Yuracko.

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