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John Paul Stevens

Recent Decisions

A member of the U.S. Supreme Court since 1975, John Paul Stevens has developed a reputation as a judicial centrist on the High Court, although many of his more well-known opinions are marked by a liberal bent.

Born on April 20, 1920, Stevens descended from Nicholas Stevens, who emigrated to America in 1659 after serving as a brigadier general in Oliver Cromwell's army. Stevens's father was a businessman and lawyer; he designed Chicago's Stevens Hotel and was its original managing director.

A political moderate during his college days at the University of Chicago, Stevens graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1941. During WORLD WAR II he served with the U.S. Navy and was awarded the Bronze Star. After the war he studied law at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, graduating first in his class in 1947.

Stevens began his legal career as a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice WILEY B. RUTLEDGE. In 1948 he joined the Chicago firm of Poppenhausen, Johnston, Thompson, and Raymond, specializing in litigation and ANTITRUST LAW. In 1951 he served as associate counsel on a study of MONOPOLY power for a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. Upon returning to Chicago in 1952, Stevens founded the firm of Rothschild, Stevens, Barry, and Meyers. Along with his private practice, he taught antitrust law at the Northwestern University and the University of Chicago law schools throughout much of the 1950s. He also served for a time as a member of the U.S. attorney general's National Committee to Study Antitrust Laws.

In 1970 President RICHARD M. NIXON appointed Stevens as a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He became known for his scholarly abilities and his carefully written, clear, and succinct opinions. His first opinion on the court of appeals was a dissent in a challenge to the summary incarceration of an antiwar activist who had disrupted a legislative session (Groppi v. Leslie, 436 F.2d 331 [1971]). Stevens viewed the incarceration as unconstitutional, and the following year his minority view was vindicated by a unanimous Supreme Court (404 U.S. 496, 92 S. Ct. 582, 30 L. Ed. 2d 632).

The liberal Supreme Court justice WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS retired in 1975, providing President GERALD R. FORD his only opportunity to make a Supreme Court appointment. Stevens received high praise and active support from Ford's attorney general, EDWARD LEVI, and unqualified support from the AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION. During the Senate confirmation hearing, Stevens remarked that he believed that litigants should know how judges viewed the arguments and that it was important to make a record to note diverse views for reference in later cases.

John Paul Stevens.

Stevens was unanimously confirmed on December 17, 1975, and took his oath of office two days later.

Until Stevens became a justice, new justices were typically seen but not heard. Instead, they usually joined dissents or concurrences without offering their own opinions. Stevens did not fit that pattern. During the 1976–77 term, Stevens had seventeen separate majority concurrences and twenty-seven separate dissents, far more than any other justice.


From the start, Stevens evinced a concern that the legal system give particular care to ensure the rights of the underprivileged, including ALIENS, illegitimate children, and prisoners. However, Stevens cannot easily be classified as either a judicial liberal or a conservative. In a judicial context, a conservative judge generally will not decide issues that he or she believes are within the province of legislatures. Moreover, a conservative typically votes to enhance government power in a conflict between government interests and individual rights. A judicial liberal, on the other hand, tends to favor individual interests and will look beyond the bounds of a statute and past interpretations of the Constitution to decide social policy questions.

For example, although Stevens is generally perceived as being sympathetic to the rights of prisoners, his sympathy has not necessarily translated into leniency for criminal defendants. Stevens wrote the opinion in United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 102 S. Ct. 2157, 72 L. Ed. 2d 572 (1982), wherein the Court held that police may search compartments and containers within a vehicle even though the contents are not in plain view, as long as the search is based on PROBABLE CAUSE. Probable cause, the same standard needed to obtain a SEARCH WARRANT, is typically determined by a magistrate, but this case effectively gave that power to the police in searches of vehicle containers.

Stevens's nomination was opposed by some women's groups that claimed that he was unresponsive in several sexual discrimination cases while on the court of appeals. In 1981 he voted to uphold the all-male draft (ROSTKER V. GOLDBERG, 453 U.S. 57, 101 S. Ct. 2646, 69 L. Ed. 2d 478), and in another case he declined to consider the theory of COMPARABLE WORTH. On the other hand, he has typically voted to uphold ROE V. WADE, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), and limit restrictions to a woman's right to ABORTION (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 510 U.S. 1309, 114 S. Ct. 909, 127 L. Ed. 2d 352 [1994] and Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173, 111 S. Ct. 1759, 114 L. Ed. 2d 233 [1991]). In Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, 117 S. Ct. 1636, 137 L. Ed. 2d 945 (1997), Stevens spoke for a unanimous Court in allowing a SEXUAL HARASSMENT lawsuit against President BILL CLINTON to go forward. Stevens ruled that the Constitution does not afford a president temporary immunity—except in the most exceptional circumstances—for civil litigation arising from events that occurred before the president took office. The Court also held that Clinton was not entitled to a stay of proceedings during his term in office.

One of Stevens's earliest opinions was Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U.S. 50, 96 S. Ct. 2440, 49 L. Ed. 2d 310, (1976). He wrote for a plurality of the Court, upholding Detroit ZONING ordinances that prevented the concentration of "adult" establishments. The case was significant because the ordinance in question did not require a finding that the establishment dealt in legally obscene materials as a prerequisite to legal action. Before the ruling in Young, sexually-oriented material that was not legally obscene appeared to be entitled to complete FIRST AMENDMENT protection. Stevens wrote that the material in question was so sexually explicit as to be entitled to less protection than other speech, stating that "few of us would march our sons and daughters off to war to preserve the citizen's right to see 'Specified Sexual Activities' exhibited in the theaters of our choice." He reasoned that the zoning restriction

did not totally prohibit the availability of the material and was a reasonable action by the city to further its interest in preserving the quality of urban life. This ruling has been the basis for other restrictions that fall short of an outright prohibition of communication that is sexually explicit but not obscene.

Justice Stevens, along with Justices POTTER STEWART and LEWIS F. POWELL JR., acted as a swing vote in a series of death penalty cases in the mid-1970s. The Court upheld death penalty statutes providing for discretion in imposition but overturned those calling for mandatory death sentences. Stevens voted against the death penalty in cases of rape and dissented from a 1989 decision permitting an execution for someone who committed a murder at age sixteen or seventeen.

In Eichman v. United States, 496 U.S. 310, 110 S. Ct. 2404, 110 L. Ed. 2d 287 (1990), the Supreme Court ruled that flag burning was a form of expression protected by the First Amendment and overturned a federal statute that attempted to protect flags. The majority ruled that the statute had to withstand the most exacting scrutiny and could not be upheld under the First Amendment. Stevens wrote a dissent joined by conservative Chief Justice WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST and two other justices, maintaining that the statute was consistent with the First Amendment.

Stevens wrote the opinion in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 116 S. Ct. 1589, 134 L. Ed. 2d 809 (1996), the first case in which the High Court overturned a jury's PUNITIVE DAMAGES award. A jury awarded an automobile owner $4 million (later reduced to $2 million) when the manufacturer failed to disclose a refinished paint job on a new BMW. Stevens called the award "grossly excessive" and set out criteria to determine the propriety of punitive damage awards. The four dissenting justices in the case argued that the ruling improperly intruded into states' prerogatives.

In 1992 Stevens wrote the opinion for CIPOLLONE V. LIGGETT GROUP, INC., 505 U.S. 504, 112 S. Ct. 2608, 120 L. Ed. 2d 407 (1992), possibly exposing the tobacco industry to huge adverse verdicts for money damages by opening the door to increased litigation for smoking-related deaths. In a 7–2 decision, the Court ruled that cigarette manufacturers that lie about the dangers of smoking or otherwise misrepresent their products can be sued under state laws. Because cigarette labeling is governed by federal law, at issue was whether federal law preempts state common-law liability lawsuits. The Court ruled that federal suits are the only avenue for pursuing failure-to-warn cases or claims of omissions in the manufacturer's advertising or promotions. Litigants may sue in state court, however, for claims of breaches of express warranties, claims that cigarette advertisements are fraudulent, and claims that a company hid the dangers of smoking from state authorities or conspired to mislead smokers.

Stevens also authored WALLACE V. JAFFREE, 472 U.S. 38, 105 S. Ct. 2479, 86 L. Ed. 2d 29 (1985), holding that a state cannot provide a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day for the express purpose of facilitating meditation or prayer. The Court held that the Alabama statute in question did not pass constitutional scrutiny.


Jost, Kenneth. 1996. The Supreme Court Yearbook 1995–96. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Manaster, Kenneth A. 2001. Illinois Justice: The Scandal of 1969 and the Rise of John Paul Stevens. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Sickels, Robert J. 1988. John Paul Stevens and the Constitution: The Search for Balance. University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press.

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