Ford's decision to nominate Stevens over better-known conservative favorites like Bork shaped the direction of the closely divided Court -- and, by extension, the country. Stevens has sided with a five-bloc liberal majority to reject abortion regulations, uphold affirmative action programs, denounce religion in the public sphere, and demand greater protections for criminal defendants.
Stevens also wrote a bitter dissent in Bush v. Gore, harshly criticizing the Court's decision to stop the Florida recount in the contested 2000 presidential race. Stevens said he feared the decision, which handed the presidency to George W. Bush, had damaged the Court and undermined the public's confidence in it.
Stevens is now the oldest member of the Court, and observers have speculated for years that he is on the verge of retirement. His retirement would set off an enormous battle, because it would give President Bush another opportunity to put a more conservative stamp on the Court.
But Stevens shows no outward signs of slowing down. He has said he would remain on the bench until he no longer writes the first drafts of his opinions. He seems as engaged as ever in the Court's business, peppering lawyers with questions at oral arguments and writing opinions designed to draw support from other justices.
Last year Ford praised Stevens in connection with a symposium at Fordham University Law School to celebrate Stevens' 30th year on the Court.
Ford said in a letter to the school's dean that Stevens had "served his nation well, at all times carrying out his judicial duties with dignity, intellect and without partisan political concerns."
"Justice Stevens has made me, and our fellow citizens, proud of my three-decade-old decision to appoint him to the Supreme Court," Ford wrote.
Stevens had the letter framed, and it now hangs in his chambers.
And how does the justice want history to judge him?
"I suppose on the basis of the opinions I've written," he said. "There's an awful lot of them. They'd have to pick and choose among them. But you leave -- you know, you leave your record on what you had to say over the years."
ABC News' producer Howard Rosenberg contributed to this report