Considered more practical than ideological, Stevens is known for taking independent stances, showing deference to the legislative branch and paying special attention to the individuality of each case brought before the court.
Stevens was a registered Republican who had never been involved in politics when he became a justice in 1975. Beginning with the Reagan administration, Stevens began to appear more liberal as the court as a whole moved to the right. At present Stevens is the most senior associate justice, and defers only to Chief Justice Rehnquist in matters of court tradition and protocol.
Born in 1920, Stevens excelled as a student. He majored in English at the University of Chicago and graduated with highest honors. During World War II he earned a Bronze Star for his service on a Navy code breaking team. After the war he enrolled in Northwestern University’s law school and went on to graduate with the highest grades ever earned in the history of the institution. He served as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge during the 1947 term.
At the beginning of his legal career, Stevens practiced antitrust law in Chicago. He was considered one of the best attorneys in his field and was asked to serve as special counsel to a U.S. House subcommittee on monopolies and to the attorney general before being appointed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in by Richard Nixon in 1970.
President Gerald Ford, seeking a moderate and highly reputable nominee for the high court in the wake of the Watergate scandal, nominated Stevens in 1975. At the time Stevens was well regarded in legal and political circles and earned the American Bar Association’s highest possible rating. He was approved by the U.S. Senate in a 98 to 0 vote and took the oath of office at the age of 55.
“Several persons interviewed yesterday declined to characterize Judge Stevens in political terms, saying that the customary labels did not seem to suit him,” the New York Times reported a the day after his nomination adding that Stevens was “a man whose modesty is sometimes taken for shyness.”
Stevens’ fondness for bow ties has been interpreted as a sartorial expression of independence. He has been married to Maryan Mulholland since 1980 and is the father of four children, a son and three daughters, from a previous marriage. According to several biographical sketches, the justice enjoys playing golf and bridge and at one time piloted his own aircraft.