It may seem hard to believe now, but when Justice Stevens appeared for the opening day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1975, the first issue he felt compelled to address was his health. Stevens had undergone heart bypass surgery the year before his confirmation. But by the first day of the hearing, Stevens reported to the Committee that he had resumed one of his favorite pastimes – flying an airplane. And he as he testified at his hearing, he’d returned to work eight weeks after his surgery and was deemed by physicians to be in “perfect health.”
Of course, Justice Stevens continued to enjoy excellent health during his 34 years on the Court, where at age 89 he is the oldest sitting justice. This should have come as no surprise. Back in 1975 he reassured the Senate Judiciary Committee that his family “has a history of longevity.” He noted then that his mother was “94 years of age, and she is still alive. My father” he continued “died about a week before his 88th birthday. Their parents had similar histories.” He leaves the Court still fit enough to play tennis regularly, and strong enough of will and mind that his loss will be keenly felt by those who are concerned about the ideological imbalance of the current Court.
Until the rightward tilt of the Court (that began in earnest under Chief Justice Rehnquist and has intensified under Chief Justice Roberts), Stevens was long considered a moderate. He was an anti-trust lawyer in Chicago and then served as judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals before he was selected by President Gerald Ford to fill the seat vacated by Justice William O. Douglass. Sartorially conspicuous because of his ubiquitous bow-ties and well-known for his friendly demeanor and hard-work ethic, Stevens didn’t become a high-profile trailblazer on the Court until the presidency of President George W. Bush, beginning with his dissent in Bush v. Gore, in which Stevens predicted that the majority decision would shake “the nation’s confidence in the judge as the impartial arbiter of the law.”
Later he participated in a series of decisions striking down the Bush Administration’s efforts to deny basic due process rights to prisoner held on Guantanamo Bay, and authored the most important of those decisions, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Despite these opinions, Justice Stevens remained a moderate. As Justice Stevens noted, he may not have moved further to left so much as the Court has lurched hard toward the right since 1975.