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John Paul Stevens, ‘one of the great Justices in Supreme Court history,’ dies at 99

One of the Law School’s most distinguished alumni will be remembered for important contributions to Supreme Court jurisprudence

John Paul Stevens
John Paul Stevens graduated magna cum laude from Northwestern Law in 1947.

John Paul Stevens, one of the longest-serving justices on the Supreme Court and one of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s most prominent graduates, died July 16. He was 99.

“Justice John Paul Stevens was a brilliant mind who made an indelible mark on the Supreme Court and our country,” said Kimberly A. Yuracko, dean of Northwestern Law. “All of us at Northwestern Law are extraordinarily proud to have him as an alum. He was a treasured friend of the Law School and he will be dearly missed.”

Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro said Stevens’ influence was felt on campus and throughout the country. 

“The Northwestern University community notes with sorrow the passing of one of this university’s most distinguished alumni,” Schapiro said. “Justice Stevens’ principled approach to American jurisprudence and his intellectual independence will have an enduring influence here and across our nation.”

Stevens graduated magna cum laude from Northwestern Law in 1947 and served as co-editor-in-chief of the Northwestern University Law Review. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago.

Leader of the Court’s liberal wing

Stevens was a moderate Republican and former antitrust lawyer when President Gerald Ford nominated him as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. He took his seat December 19, 1975. Over the years, he came to be seen as a leader of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing. He was the court’s third longest-serving justice before he retired in 2010.

“John Paul Stevens will long be remembered for his many important contributions to Supreme Court jurisprudence,” said Martin Redish, the Louis and Harriet Ancel Professor of Law and Public Policy at Northwestern Law. “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. 

John Paul Stevens
Stevens received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

“And he did so with wit, intelligence and the compelling force of logic. I can honestly say, without hyperbole, that he deserves recognition as one of the truly great justices in Supreme Court history,” said Redish who writes on the subjects of federal jurisdiction, civil procedure, freedom of expression and constitutional law.

In a 2017 interview for the Law School’s Oral History Project recorded in his chambers at the Supreme Court, Stevens said, “I like our [justice] system much better than other systems, where they suppress dissent rather than let the dissenters say what they want to say. I think it’s much healthier to have every member of the court perfectly free to express his or her own views.”

Robert Bennett, the Nathaniel L. Nathanson Professor of Law Emeritus at Northwestern Law and former dean at the Law School, said Stevens “was as close as you get to what a Supreme Court justice should be.”

“Justice Stevens was striking for combining congeniality and respect for the Supreme Court as an institution with a willingness to say so when he thought the court had gone wrong,” Bennett said. 

Stevens at Northwestern Law

In Stevens’ honor, several of his former classmates established the John Paul Stevens Professorship at the Law School in 1992. The school also has the Justice John Paul Stevens Public Interest Fellowship Program, which provides financial assistance to students who volunteer for public interest summer jobs.

Stevens looked back on his time at the Law School in a 2009 interview with Northwestern Magazine. 

“They had a wonderful faculty at Northwestern, and it was quite small, I think eight or 10 professors,” Stevens recalled. “It was just a handful of the best. They were really quality teachers and they all made a very significant impression on me. It’s different now where schools have these huge faculties — I don’t know how the students can develop the same relationships we did.”

Stevens’ returned to his alma mater to deliver Northwestern Law’s convocation address in May 2011, which had special significance for Stevens as well as for the Northwestern community. 

Stevens missed his own law school convocation in 1947. He was allowed to miss his final exam for federal taxation, the only course he took his last term, to leave Chicago early to begin his law clerkship in Washington, D.C.

The law school convocation in 2011 concluded Stevens’ two-day visit to the Law School. The day before an academic symposium and a celebratory dinner were held in his honor. He also participated in a question-and-answer session moderated by Law School alumni.

In 2012, Justice Stevens donated his Supreme Court chair to the Law School. Justice Stevens sat in this chair during much of his tenure on the Supreme Court.

Chicagoan and longtime Cubs fan

Stevens served in the United States Navy from 1942–1945 and was a law clerk to Justice Wiley Rutledge of the Supreme Court of the United States during the 1947 term. He was admitted to law practice in Illinois in 1949. 

Born in Chicago and raised in Hyde Park, Stevens was a lifelong fan of the Cubs and went to his first game at Wrigley Field during the 1929 World Series.

Steven Calabresi, the Clayton J. & Henry R. Barber Professor of Law at Northwestern Law, said Justice Stevens was a brilliant man with exceptionally high standards in opinion writing and in his work as a Supreme Court justice.

“He worked hard, wrote beautifully and was a real leader on the Supreme Court,” said Calabresi, who teaches Constitutional law. “Justice Stevens was an absolutely superb member of the Supreme Court.”

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