John Paul Stevens evolved into Supreme Court’s liberal lion

FILE - In this May 30, 2012, file photo, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens speaks at a lecture presented by the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Ark. Stevens, the bow-tied, independent-thinking, Republican-nominated justice who unexpectedly emerged as the Supreme Court's leading liberal, died Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after suffering a stroke Monday. He was 99. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — John Paul Stevens moved left as the Supreme Court shifted to the right during his nearly 35 years as a justice.

That’s how the bow-tie wearing Republican from the Midwest emerged as the leader of the high court’s liberal wing and a strong proponent of abortion rights, consumer protection and limits on the death penalty.

Stevens, who died Tuesday at age 99 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, served longer than all but two justices and was the second-oldest after Oliver Wendell Holmes in the court’s nearly 230 years.

He stepped down from the bench at age 90, but remained active in public life. He wrote books, spoke frequently in public and contributed lengthy pieces to The New York Review of Books.

Stevens liked to argue that his views remained more or less the same, while the court became more conservative during his tenure. “I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all,” Stevens told The New York Times in 2007. “I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative.”

But the justice began his Supreme Court years as a critic of affirmative action and a supporter of the death penalty. His views on both shifted substantially to the point that Stevens declared in 2008 that he believes the death penalty is unconstitutional.

His legal reasoning was often described as unpredictable or idiosyncratic, especially in his early years on the court. He was a prolific writer of separate opinions laying out his own thinking, whether he agreed or disagreed with the majority’s ruling. Yet Stevens didn’t consider his methods novel.

He tended toward a case-by-case approach, avoided sweeping judicial philosophies, and stayed mindful of precedent.

“I was trying to apply the law in a sensible way,” he told USA Today after his retirement. “I pretty much always thought I had the right answer.”

He never shied from issuing a lone dissent, as he did a 2007 case about a high-speed police chase.

That case was notable for the justices’ ability to watch the chase on video from cameras mounted in police cruisers. What they saw scared them, and led to an 8-1 ruling that held officers blameless for the grievous injuries suffered by the driver of the car that was being pursued.

It didn’t scare Stevens, who said he learned to drive when most high-speed driving took place on two-lane roads, “when split-second judgments about the risk of passing a slow-poke in the face of oncoming traffic were routine.” Had his younger colleagues learned the same way, he said, “they might well have reacted to the videotape more dispassionately.”

The white-haired Stevens, eyes often twinkling behind owlish glasses, was the picture of old-fashioned geniality on the court and off. He took an unusually courteous tone with lawyers arguing their cases, but he was no pushover. After his fellow justices fired off questions, Stevens would politely weigh in. “May I ask a question?” he’d ask gently, then quickly slice to the weakest point of a lawyer’s argument.

Stevens was especially concerned with the plight of ordinary citizens up against the government or other powerful interests — a type of struggle he witnessed as a boy.

When he was 14, his father, owner of a grand but failing Chicago hotel, was wrongly convicted of embezzlement. Ernest Stevens was vindicated on appeal, but decades later his son would say the family’s ordeal taught him that justice can misfire.

More often, however, Stevens credited his sensitivity to abuses of power by police and prosecutors to what he learned while representing criminal defendants in pro bono cases as a young Chicago lawyer.

He voiced only one regret about his Supreme Court career: that he had supported reinstating the death penalty in 1976. More than three decades later, Stevens publicly declared his opposition to capital punishment, saying that years of bad court decisions had overlooked racial bias, favored prosecutors, and otherwise undermined his expectation that death sentences could be handed down fairly.

He wasn’t always a champion of the individual. A case allowing New London, Connecticut, to seize people’s homes for a redevelopment project was one of the most famous — and unpopular — majority opinions written by Stevens.

“Friends and acquaintances frequently told me that they could not understand how I could have authored such an opinion,” he said, while maintaining that the city’s actions were constitutional, even if unwise.

One of his harshest dissents came when the court lifted restrictions on spending by corporations and unions to sway elections. He called the 2010 ruling “a rejection of the common sense of the American people” and a threat to democracy.