Justice John Paul Stevens: The Man Behind The Robes

The justice from Chicago is retiring.

April 9, 2010— -- In just 11 days, Justice John Paul Stevens, unmistakable in his bow tie, will turn 90.

The justice who announced today he will step down at the end of the court term has served seven administrations, seven presidents. In many ways he embodies an arc of American history.

Earlier this month he said, "It's a wonderful job. ... I wouldn't have hung around so long if I didn't like the job."

But he has also suggested he might not be confirmed unanimously were he to be nominated today.

Too liberal, he thinks, though he still thinks of himself as a judicial conservative despite being vilified by conservatives for being the most liberal judge on the court.

Would he even want to be nominated today?

"Well, the process is very similar. The big difference in the process now is that it's televised, and that makes a huge difference," he said. "There's much more time taken up by the senators in explaining how important the hearings are then finding what the nominee has to say in answer to your questions. But the process is still very much the same."

You can learn about the man from the items on his office wall. He has a deep passion for baseball. There is a scorecard from a Chicago Cubs game, his hometown team, hanging up there.

"That was a gift from my law clerks a few years ago," he said. "Because they know I'm a Cub fan and kind of encouraged by continued interest in the Cubs."

Flash forward to 2005, when Stevens threw out the first ball for his beloved team.

There is also a scoreboard from the 1932 World Series. Stevens was 12 as he sat in Wrigley Field watching Babe Ruth, in the fifth inning of game 3, hitting his famous "called shot" home run.

Stevens was born and raised in Chicago, the youngest of four sons. They were part of an important Chicago family. His father built the Stevens hotel, the world's largest at the time.

John, as he was known, was an English major at the University of Chicago and then served in the Navy as an intelligence officer during World War II. He was awarded a bronze star for his service before setting off to become a lawyer.

He is a generation or two removed from his colleagues on the current bench. When Chief Justice John Roberts served as William H. Rehnquist's clerk, Stevens already had served as a Supreme Court justice for half a decade.

Nominated By President Ford

Also on that wall is a letter from the man who nominated him.

"Normally little or no consideration is given to the long term effects of a president's Supreme court nominees," it reads. "Let that not be the case with my presidency. For I am prepared to allow history's judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessarily, exclusively) on my nomination 30 years ago of justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court."

Those are words that mean a lot.

"It has a lot of nice words in it from a man whom I respect and admire so much," said Stevens. "Of course, when you get that kind of letter, you're very happy."

Stevens always writes the first draft of his decisions, something most justices have their clerks do. He always said he'd retire if he ever got to the point where he wasn't up to the task.

For 34 years, he brought an old-fashioned work ethic to the court, hardly showing his age.

"I play a lot of tennis," he said. "I play -- I don't play as much golf as I used to because my fore swing is not the same as it used to be. But when I'm in Florida, I go swimming every day and play tennis probably three times a week."

He is a man who has seen and made history.

How would he like history to judge him?

"Well, that's an interesting question," he said. "I suppose based on the opinions I've written. There's an awful lot of them, you'd have to pick and choose among them, but you leave your record on what you've had to say over the years."