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How Justice John Paul Stevens hoped to be remembered

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died Tuesday at age 99. Stevens grew up in Chicago, served in the Navy and as a law clerk and worked in private practice before becoming a federal appeals judge in 1970. Five years later, President Gerald Ford nominated Stevens to the Supreme Court, where he remained for 35 years. Judy Woodruff remembers Stevens’ legal record and personal legacy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, remembering a legend of the law.

    Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, whose career on the high court spanned 35 years, died yesterday.

    In a statement, Chief Justice John Roberts said: "He brought to our bench an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom and independence. His unrelenting commitment to justice has left us a better nation."

    We look back now on Stevens' life and legacy.

    By the time John Paul Stevens received the nation's highest civilian honor in 2012, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he had already put his stamp on American law.

    As former President Barack Obama noted that day, Stevens, bow-tie and all, did so in his own way.

  • Barack Obama:

    During oral argument, Justice John Paul Stevens often began his line of questioning with a polite, "May I interrupt?" or "May I ask a question?"

    And you can imagine the lawyers would say, OK.

  • Barack Obama:

    After which he would, just as politely, force a lawyer to stop dancing around and focus on the most important issues in the case. And that was his signature style: modest, insightful, well-prepared, razor-sharp.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The justice was a product of the Windy City, the son of a hotel businessman and an English teacher.

    A longtime Chicago Cubs fan, Stevens said, as a boy, he was at Wrigley Field in 1932, witness to the New York Yankees' Babe Ruth and his legendary called shot home run.

    After serving in the U.S. Navy, working as a Supreme Court clerk, and lawyering in private practice, Stevens was appointed in 1970 to be a federal appeals judge. Then, in 1975, President Gerald Ford picked him to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Stevens would serve for 35 years.

    In that time, the Republican appointee was eventually seen as a liberal leader on the court, although, in 2011, a retired Justice Stevens told our late "NewsHour" colleague Gwen Ifill that he never cared for the label.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    By the time you retired, you were considered to be the court's unlikely liberal. Were you really that unlikely? Or were you really that liberal?

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Well, I never have been a fan of trying to use labels like that to describe justices, because, very often, the justice will be liberal on one issue and conservative on another.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the justice's former Supreme Court clerks, Melissa Arbus Sherry, echoed that sentiment.

  • Melissa Arbus Sherry:

    He was a true judge, in that he just felt like the justice or judge is to bring their own judgment to each and every case. And I think that is what he applied throughout his career, and it may have led to differing decisions along the way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stevens' majority opinions handed legal victories to detainees at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who were seeking to challenge their detentions.

    Another ruled in favor of convicts with mental disabilities who had been sentenced to death. And during that 2011 "NewsHour" interview, he said he disagreed with the way some conservative justices interpret federal law and the Constitution.

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Everybody agrees that it's appropriate to do everything you can to understand the original intent behind both statutes and constitutional provisions.

    But the notion that that can provide the answer in all cases is what is incorrect. It sheds light on all cases, but it is just one of the tools you have to use.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Often, Stevens was in dissent. Even in his final months of life, Stevens lamented the court's 2000 Bush v. Gore ruling, which ended a Florida recount and effectively decided that year's presidential election.

    He disagreed sharply with how his conservative colleagues voted in the Heller case, loosening gun laws.

    And when I sat down with Stevens this spring, for one of his final interviews, he said this about the 2010 Citizens United ruling on campaign finance laws:

    Why do you think it's had a corrosive effect on American politics?

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Just look at the amount of money. I can't give you the figures, but millions and millions of dollars are spent on campaigns now.

    And, often, there's state representatives spending money provided by residents of other states. People in the district should be the ones who decide the outcome of elections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The ruling in Citizens United came toward the end of Stevens' tenure, throughout which he was able to maintain a rich personal life.

    Again, former clerk Melissa Arbus Sherry:

  • Melissa Arbus Sherry:

    He was very passionate about everything, about, you know, all of his interests. And so he had a lot of extracurricular interests outside the court, tennis and golf and bridge and the like.

    But he was so passionate about the law. I mean, for many years after he was off the court, he was still writing and speaking and traveling.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I asked him to assess his lengthy career and his own impact on American law.

    You have a remarkable legacy on the court. You served for 35 years. What do you believe your legacy will be?

  • John Paul Stevens:

    Well, that's difficult to figure out.

    But I would like people to think I was an honest judge and a good judge, and I always tried to reach the best result in every case.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He suffered a stroke earlier this week, and died yesterday evening in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

    Justice John Paul Stevens was 99 years old.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it was an honor to sit down with him this year.

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