Justice Stevens Returns to Supreme Court for Final Time

July 22, 2019 by Dan McCue
Official Portrait of Justice John Paul Stevens (8490-13)

WASHINGTON — Retired Justice John Paul Stevens returned to the U.S. Supreme Court one last time on Monday, his casket carried into the court’s Great Hall passed as scores of his former clerks and family looked on.

Stevens, who retired from the court in 2010, died last week after suffering a stroke at his home near Ft. Lauderdale Florida. He was 99.

His arrival was met by six of his former colleagues: , Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan attended the ceremony along with retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Kagan, who replaced Stevens on the court, spoke during a brief ceremony, calling Stevens “a modest man who achieved greatness.”

“He was a brilliant man with extraordinary legal gifts and talents which he combined with a deep devotion to the rule of law and a deep commitment to equal justice,” she said.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrived at the Supreme Court building shortly before 11 a.m. and walked along the side of the hall before stopping in front of Stevens’ flag-draped coffin.

Both the president and the first lady bowed their heads in silence for a moment before walking over to a large portrait of the justice that had been brought into the room. They made no public remarks and left a few minutes later.

Stevens was appointed to the high court by President Gerald Ford in 1975, and eventually served more than 34 years.

Last Wednesday, as news of Stevens’ death spread, Chief Justice Roberts said the late justice  “brought to our bench an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom, and independence” … that “left us a better nation.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called Stevens her “model for all a collegial judge should be.”

“Circulations from other chambers invariably took precedence over all else on his work table,” she said. “His manner at oral argument typified both his civility and the quality of his mind. He preceded his questions with the politest “May I …,” then invited advocates to train their attention on the issue likely to be dispositive. 

“In a Capital City with no shortage of self-promoters, Justice Stevens set a different tone,” she continued. “Quick as his bright mind was, Justice Stevens remained a genuinely gentle and modest man. No jurist with whom I have served was more dedicated to the judicial craft, more open to what he called ‘learning on the job,’ more sensitive to the wellbeing of the community law exists (or should exist) to serve.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, lauded the justice’s “strong humane instincts.”

“When I first came to the Court and thereafter, I found that John was a considerate, helpful, good-natured, and insightful colleague,” Breyer said. “Those who have read his most recent book will know that he had an adventurous side to his nature as well.

John understood how the rule of law forms a necessary part of our constitutional democracy,” the justice continued. “He understood that laws are designed primarily to serve those who live under them. His work reveals that understanding. The Nation will long benefit from that work; and he will be long remembered. “

Retired Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke of how “remarkably well-prepared” Stevens was for every case.

“He was emphatic always in asking this question: Is what the Court about to do fair to the injured party? He was brilliant at interpreting the law in a way to reach what he considered to be the fair result.”

But Kennedy went on to talk about another side of the late justice, Stevens the close personal friend.

“John had a brilliant mind. He enjoyed discussing literature, sports, history, the law, and endless other subjects. We used to say that we should not visit each other’s chambers too often because once we started to talk, it was hard to stop,” Kennedy said.

He is survived by his children, Elizabeth Jane Sesemann and Susan Roberta Mullen, nine grandchildren: Kathryn, Christine, Edward, Susan, Lauren, John, Madison, Hannah, Haley, and 13 great-grandchildren.

His first wife Elizabeth Jane, his second wife, Maryan Mulholland, his son, John Joseph, and his daughter, Kathryn, preceded him in death.

Stevens will be buried Tuesday in a private ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

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