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US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens Dies

2019-7-17

John Paul Stevens was one of the longest-serving justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. He was on the court for 35 years, from 1975 to 2010. He retired at the age of 90.

Stevens died on Tuesday at the age of 99.

FILE - Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in Washington, April 30, 2014.
FILE - Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in Washington, April 30, 2014.

The Associated Press reports that Stevens’ political thinking moved left as the court’s ideas moved right. He belonged to the generally conservative Republican Party. Republican president Gerald Ford nominated him to the Supreme Court.

He wore bow ties – a kind of neckwear that some Americans connect to conservative or traditional culture. And he himself told the New York Times in 2007, “I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all. I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative.”

When Stevens began his time on the court, he held historically conservative views, criticizing affirmative action and supporting the death penalty. But in time, he changed his mind about both. He also spoke strongly in favor of some historically liberal ideas, such as abortion rights and the separation of government and religion.

Early life

Stevens grew up in a wealthy family in Chicago, Illinois. In many ways, his childhood was lucky. His family owned a beautiful hotel. There, Stevens met the famous American pilots Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. He also saw baseball player Babe Ruth hit a famous home run in the 1932 World Series.

But when Stevens was a teenager, his father was wrongly ruled guilty of a crime. Stevens said later the situation made him want to protect citizens from powerful forces. As a young lawyer, he defended people for free against the police or the government.

Stevens also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He received an award for being part of a Japanese code-breaking team. The team’s work permitted the U.S. to shoot down a plane carrying the leader of the Japanese Navy. He said the targeted wartime killing later added to his changing ideas about the death penalty.

Many years later, Stevens added that he did not believe death sentences could be decided fairly.

Decisions

As a Supreme Court justice, Stevens often made decisions on a case-by-case basis. For example, although he usually defended the rights of individuals, he once permitted city officials to force people out of their homes to support a business project. Stevens defended his reasoning. He said the city was acting legally, even if it was not acting wisely.

Stevens was also known for defending protesters – but he did not accept abuse of the American flag. He said the flag deserved protection as “a symbol of freedom, of equal opportunity, of religious tolerance.”

In 2000, Stevens notably disagreed when the majority of justices permitted George W. Bush to win the presidency. He also strongly opposed a 2010 court ruling that ended restrictions on how much money large businesses and unions could spend to influence elections. In Stevens’ thinking, both these decisions threatened Americans’ trust in their system of government.

After he retired from the court at age 90, Stevens spent part of his time in Florida. He played tennis, swam, wrote books, and spoke in public. He was married two times and had four children, nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. His two surviving daughters were with him when he died of problems related to a stroke.

I’m Ashley Thompson.

Kelly Jean Kelly adapted this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

affirmative action - n. the practice or policy of favoring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously

pretty - adv. to a great degree or extent

darn - adv. used as a more polite form of damn

code - n. a set of letters, numbers, symbols, etc., that is used to secretly send messages to someone

view - n. an opinion or way of thinking about something

abortion - n. a medical procedure used to end a pregnancy and cause the death of the fetus

equal opportunity - n. having a chance to succeed without regard to race, religion, etc.

tolerance - n. willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own