Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, whose Supreme Court opinions transformed many areas of law during a 34-year tenure, died at 99. NPR calls him “a maverick on the bench.” In his first decade, he was viewed as a center-right justice, but as the court grew more conservative, he found himself referred to as the court’s most liberal member, a label he never liked. In 1997, when the court majority ruled that a key section of the Brady gun-control law unconstitutionally conscripted local law enforcement to conduct background checks of gun buyers, Stevens took the unusual step of announcing his dissent from the bench. “The basic question is whether Congress, acting on behalf of the people of the entire nation, has the power to require local law enforcement officers to perform certain duties,” he said.
In a 2010 NPR interview, Stevens said that in his 3 1/2 decades on the court, he really had just one regret: his 1976 vote to revive the death penalty by upholding a Texas death penalty statute. Stevens said that at the time the court had adopted many rules to limit the death penalty to a narrow category of offenders and to prevent what he called “loading the dice” for the prosecution. Over time, those limiting rules were abandoned. In his later years, Stevens opposed most death sentences, winning rare but important victories, as when he wrote the court’s opinion striking down capital punishment for the mentally retarded. The New Yorker notes that the Supreme Court appointees of President Trump “are dedicated to overturning virtually everything that Stevens stood for as a justice, including “a sensible understanding of the right to regulate guns under the Second Amendment (which Stevens, in retirement, called for repealing.)”