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Celebrating the Late Justice John Paul Stevens

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 28: Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens answers a question posed by Brooke Gladstone (not shown), Host and Managing Editor of National Public Radio newsmagazine at the National Constitution Center April 28 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Stevens discussed his new book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 19, 2019

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens served on the Court for almost 35 years, giving him the third-longest tenure in history. The length of his term, and his presence as the face of the Court's liberal wing from the 1980s to 2000s made Justice Stevens's influence on the bench -- and on American life -- unlike that of nearly any other jurist.

In the wake of his passing this week, we look back at some of his most influential decisions, and the impact he continued to have after his retirement. Stevens wrote the majority opinion giving Guantanamo Bay detainees the right to challenge their incarceration in federal court, and he voted in favor of gay rights, to reaffirm Roe v. Wade, and in support of college admissions policies that took race into account. He also penned prickly dissents in Bush v. Gore, Citizens United, and District of Columbia v. Heller. And the former Justice Stevens didn't quiet his legal opinions in retirement:

Justice Stevens Snags Medal of Freedom, Criticizes Citizens United

After naming Justice Elena Kagan as his successor, then-President Barak Obama awarded Justice Stevens the Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honor in the country) in 2014 for his dedication to the Constitution. "Justice Stevens applied, throughout his career, his clear and graceful manner to the defense of individual rights and the rule of law," Obama praised, "always favoring a pragmatic solution over an ideological one." But he still had his ideas about Citizens United, noting a recent decision scaling back the scope of that ruling, and hoping to see more.

Justice Stevens and 'The Fix'

His proposals for legal repairs extended beyond prior Supreme Court rulings. Stevens penned "Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution," which included five words to "fix" the Second Amendment, inserting them thus:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed."

While reasonable people can disagree on whether this would truly fix the seemingly intractable gun rights battle, Stevens never wavered in effort to curb gun violence.

The Justice Stevens 'Retirement' Tour Makes a Stop in Congress

Another popular target of Stevens's legal ire was campaign finance, and even at the ripe old age of 94, he was speaking to Senate panels on the topic. The retired justice argued that finance restrictions are not a partisan issued and asked Congress to find a way to rein in the billions of dollars flooding contemporary elections.

Justice Stevens: Legalize Pot, 'Fix' 2nd Amendment

He may have been old, but he was ahead of his time on marijuana legalization. "I really think that that's another instance of public opinion [that's] changed," Stevens, who lived through the Prohibition Era, told NPR in 2014. "And recognize that the distinction between marijuana and alcoholic beverages is really not much of a distinction. Alcohol, the prohibition against selling and dispensing alcoholic beverages has I think been generally, there's a general consensus that it was not worth the cost. And I think really in time that will be the general consensus with respect to this particular drug." Pretty chill, bro.

Who Are the Worst Supreme Court Justices of All Time?

The fact that Justice Stevens doesn't make this list says it all. Whether he would make your "Best Supreme Court Justices of All Time" list probably depends on where you fall on the political spectrum, but his incredible and continued influence as a jurist is beyond debate.

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